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What are the causes of the current calamity in Laos? An Interview with Dr. Lia Genovese

Rattana Lao

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The Xe Pian-Xe Nam Noy hydropower project is financed by companies from South Korea (SK Engineering and Korea Western Power), Thailand’s Ratchaburi Electricity Generating Holding and the Lao government. A statement issued by Mekong Eye on 31 July 2018 stated that Japan is also involved in its financing.

A devastating incident occurred in the Sanamxay district of Attapeu province in southern Laos. On the evening of 22 July 2018, engineers at SK Engineering discovered that one of the project’s supporting dams had been partially washed out and notified the Lao authorities. Apparently, efforts to repair the damaged structure were hampered by the state of the roads, which delayed the necessary heavy equipment reaching the area before disaster struck the very next day. On 23 July, the top of a saddle dam at one of the Xe Pian-Xe Nam Noy reservoirs collapsed, releasing billions of cubic feet of water. Over 6,000 people have already been evacuated to emergency shelters. The flood has caused severe damage to private property and infrastructure. The dam collapse has also affected villages downstream in Cambodia.

The precise death toll is still unknown and has oscillated between 31 and 35 victims. On 5 August, the Chinese agency Xinhua stated that 34 people were confirmed dead and scores more are still unaccounted for.

Early official statements calling the catastrophe a natural disaster caused by seasonal rains, are being disputed by experts. During an interview with the BBC World Service on 25 July, Dr. Ian Baird, Associate professor of geography at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA, unequivocally attributed the disaster to poor management. Furthermore, the South Korean building company, SK Engineering & Construction, asserts that “it warned the [Lao] government”.

The disaster could have been prevented with better management, greater risk assessment and better building standards, according to the Lao government. On 27 July, four days after the dam collapse, the Lao Energy Minister, Mr. Khammany Inthirath, told a press conference in Vientiane that the disaster was caused by substandard construction.

Attapeu province is highly contaminated by unexploded ordnances (UXO, remnants of the Vietnam conflict), and although parts of the province have been cleared of UXO, the UN recommends caution when digging, since cluster bombs are more likely to be buried (‘Lao PDR: Flash Flooding in Sanamxay’, District Office of the UN Resident Coordinator Situation Report No. 05 (as of 1 August 2018).

Livestock, buffaloes and domestic animals have perished. On 3 August, the Vientiane Times reported the loss at more than 12,000 animals, as well as more than 19,000 chickens and other fowl, while 280 fishponds were damaged.

What are the immediate needs to help rebuild Laos?

Numerous governments have sent funds and humanitarian aid, including Thailand, Vietnam, China, Singapore, Cambodia, the European Union (EU), the US and North Korea. It seems that supplies have reached the affected areas with some difficulty, due to the state of the roads, damaged by the flood and covered in rivers of mud. According to a Voice of America report published on 6 August: “Satellite images show Attapeu lying on a bend of the river with a pre-crisis network of roads, but a later image shows the flooded area as a brown mass of mud with few structures left recognizable”.

Cash donations have also been collected. The Lao bank BCEL set up the One Heart fund-raising initiative for people to donate by debit or credit cards. In Thailand, donations collected by Krungthai Bank for the flood victims had reached 25 million baht by the end of July (account number 067-12886-4 of Krungthai Bank, Government House branch, Cash donations are proving effective in helping victims of this disaster, while the delivery of relief aid (blankets, medicines, safe drinking water, food, etc.) is hampered by practical difficulties in accessing the affected areas.

Do you think the country is resilient enough to weather this chaos?

As a concerned citizen of the world, rather than an expert on development strategies, in my view there are good chances that Laos, and particularly the affected areas in Attapeu province, will weather this catastrophe. Laos has much at stake in its chosen development strategy aimed at energy generation. This is a setback in the country’s ambitious plan to have a total of 100 dams by 2040. Approximately, 85 percent of the energy generated by these dams is exported.

What needs to be done differently for Laos to recover and sustain?

Since 1971, the UN has classed Laos as a Least Developed Country (LDC), a label the country is trying to shed. Laos is traversed by the Mekong for hundreds of miles, from north to south, before this great river flows into Cambodia and the delta in Vietnam. Laos has said in the past that it is making the best of a punishing geography, due to the country being landlocked.

Yearly, the sale of energy contributes around $650 million to the country’s GDP, but still only half of the revenue generated by ore production from mining investment projects approved by the central government, which in 2017 reached around $1.2 billion.

Unlike some of her neighbours (Thailand and the Philippines, chiefly), Laos has shown negligible interest in the potential of renewable energy, despite enjoying an average of 1,800-2,000 hours of sunlight per year, or 200-300 sunlight days per year, particularly in the south of the country. Consequently, progress in sources of renewable energy has been slow and foreign investment has lagged behind, in contrast to the aggressive push for hydropower projects.

What Laos wishes to do is secondary to other countries’ vision for Laos. A number of countries, as well as NGOs, environmental and human rights organisations, have expressed their reservations about Laos’ stated hydropower goals, because of the cost to the country’s ecology, and the human cost caused by the displacement of thousands of families. Laos’ potential in generating energy for sale was known to the French colonisers a century ago but, despite a number of surveys shortly after the 1893 annexation of Laos as the fifth province of French Indochina, the French colonial government elected not to exploit the potential of the Nam Theun river, due to the massive investment required in building an often non-existent infrastructure. Only in recent years, was this massive hydropower project built, with funding from the World Bank, among others.

Laos can recover from this tragedy, through its own resources and with help from the international community.

What can the public immediately do to save Laos?

In the immediate aftermath of this man-made disaster, the public should follow events and contribute with cash donations and goods in kind, and pay attention to messages from the Lao government and aid agencies as to the most effective ways to assist the affected communities.

For the longer term, a rethink of Laos’ development goals is essential. Much of Laos’ energy for sale is exported to its neighbours, where it is squandered on excessive air-conditioning for shopping malls, supermarkets, offices and homes, entertainment places, etc. Laos’ energy-hungry neighbours need to understand the hidden “costs” to a poor country like Laos, where the race to become the “Battery of Southeast Asia” is being achieved at the expense of natural resources, human capital and tragedies.

Concerned members of the public can lobby their respective governments for civil society to be respected in Laos, as a forum for free expression. It is essential that Lao citizens are involved in the consultation process for new hydropower projects or other large-scale projects which involve environmental degradation, a high level of risk and loss of a traditional way of life for communities along the Mekong.

Building dams along the Mekong must be discussed as a transnational issue, rather than pertaining to Laos alone, as was made clear in the Xe Pian-Xe Nam Noy disaster affecting downstream villages in Cambodia.

Pressure should be applied on the Lao government to ensure transparency in its investigations of Lao communities affected by the massive flooding in Attapeu province.

The 31 July statement issued by Mekong Watch, mentioned earlier, urges donor countries and development agencies to support the Lao government “in seeking compensation from the dam companies, and re-direct their aid policies that rely on hydropower development”.

About Lia Genovese

Lia Genovese holds a PhD from SOAS-University of London for a Dissertation titled ‘The Plain of Jars of North Laos – Beyond Madeleine Colani’. Her current research interests include: the Plain of Jars of Laos; French colonial archaeology; the megaliths of South and Southeast Asia; Iron Age mortuary practices; cultural heritage and conservation. She is currently working on a critical biography of the life and work of the French archaeologist Madeleine Colani.

Rattana Lao holds a doctorate in Comparative and International Education from Teachers College, Columbia University and writes on education and development. She is based in Bangkok, Thailand.

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Southeast Asia

Indonesia: Balanced politics amid major powers

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In 2020, Russia and Indonesia will mark 70 years to the establishment of  diplomatic relations between the two countries. Given that the epicenter of the geopolitical activity is currently shifting towards the Asia-Pacific Region (APR), the role of Indonesia as the planet’s strategically important location increases.

Along with Russia, there are a number of other countries that are as keen on developing ties with Indonesia. One of them is Australia, which is particularly active due to its geographical location.

Indonesia and Australia boast a comprehensive bilateral strategic partnership agreement, which defines them as “strategic anchors of the Indo-Pacific Region”. According to tradition, each newly elected Australian Prime Minister pays his first foreign visit to Indonesia. Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who took office on August 24, 2018, kept the tradition as well.

In Jakarta, Morrison met with Indonesian partners to discuss the details of a strategic cooperation agreement, which envisages economic cooperation, security measures, exploitation of marine resources, ensuring stability in the Indo-Pacific Region and social projects.

According to the Jakarta Maritime Policy Strategy (Global Maritime Fulcrum), Indonesia is regarded as the fulcrum between the Indian and the Pacific. Canberra also sees Jakarta as key to Australia’s defense strategy.

Indonesia’s territory embraces most of the archipelagoes north of Australia and these make a convenient springboard for a hypothetical threat to the Australian coast. In addition, Indonesia stands at the junction of marine and air routes from Australia to Europe and from Australia to Asia-Pacific countries. Joint naval exercises run by the Indonesian and Australian defense ministries account for 24% of the total, while 33% of the drills are held by the Air Forces, 30% by special services and special task forces, and 2% by the peacekeeping contingents.

Australia became the third country with which Jakarta signed a comprehensive strategic cooperation agreement after the United States (2013) and China (2015). In 2017, the two parties signed the Joint Declaration on Maritime Cooperation, in 2018 – the Maritime Cooperation Action Plan, covering 85 areas with the participation of 17 Australian and 20 Indonesian departments and agencies.

Australia finds Indonesia more important than Indonesia finds Australia. As a single continent, Australia attaches particular importance to foreign policy with a view to ensure its national security. As for Indonesia, it has a more introverted policy. Being the largest island nation on the planet, Jakarta aims to guarantee its security through internal consolidation of the many islands that make up the Indonesian state.

Pursuing the policy of “non-alignment”, Indonesia seeks to diversify foreign economic and foreign policy relations. This becomes clear from the previous development of the Indonesian-Australian relations: Jakarta would quickly freeze projects with Canberra once it spotted a disproportionate presence of Australia in Indonesian politics.

That was the case in 1999 when Jakarta withdrew from the Security Agreement, signed in 1995, in 2013 when it suspended defense cooperation and cooperation between special services, and 2016 when it suspended the language training of military personnel.

For Indonesia, a multi-vector foreign policy is crucial for maintaining a healthy balance of power in the region. For this reason, Moscow is an attractive economic partner for Jakarta. That Russian-Indonesian contacts have been developing at fast pace can be concluded from the fact that there have been several meetings between the two countries’ presidents, that Russia has been supplying Indonesia with weapons, that the two countries’ armed forces have held joint exercises, that Indonesian representatives have participated in business forums in Russia and that the Russian capital has revealed in interest in Indonesia’s projects in the mining industry.

Jakarta and Moscow are considering prospects for the introduction of a free trade zone in Indonesia and the EEU. Indonesia is also ready to join the Chinese global infrastructure project “One Belt, One Road.”

Under the project, Chinese investments in the Indonesian transport infrastructure amount to $ 6 billion, which is clearly not enough for a rapid growth of transit of commodities and haulages from China and the Asia-Pacific countries through Indonesia. Indonesia’s medium-term economic development plan stipulates local financing at 63% (4). The rest should come from foreign investors, which could include Russia.

First published in our partner International Affairs

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Southeast Asia

Improving Vocational Education in Thailand: An interview with Khunying Sumonta Promboon

Rattana Lao

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Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn visited Chitlarada Technology College with a welcome by Associate Professor Khunying Sumonta Promboon, the President of Chitralada Technology College

Bangkok – When robots are advancing and industries are playing catch up to technological advancement, vocational education plays a pivotal role in national development. Instead of arcane theory, vocational education trains students with sophisticated, hands on and practical skills needed to excel in the world of work. Vocational training offers an up to date and cutting edged techniques for students not only comply but push technical boundaries forward. Countries that excel in their industrialization all champion vocational education – Germany, China and Taiwan to name but a few.

Thailand, despite setting its eyes for Thailand 4.0 to transform its economy to digitalization, automation and robotics, is falling behind the race to the top. The World Bank found that 40% of the top tier international firms reported the inadequate skills as the major constraint. While the country is in much needed position for vocational education, there are only 1 million students in vocational school comparing to 2.5 millions in higher education. Although the country has more than 900 vocational colleges, students opt for higher education because better images and prestigious. When news about vocational education in Thailand are filled with images of violent students and gang fights amongst students, there is a dire need to reform this important sector. Rattana Lao, Program Officer in Policy and Research at the Asia Foundation, talked to Associate Professor Khunying Sumonta Promboon, the President of Chitralada Technology College on ways in which Thailand vocational education can reform itself to better respond to national demand: One step at a time.

What role should vocational education play in Thailand?

Vocational education should be the main educational track to educate and encourage young students to partake in the national development of the country. After receiving basic education of grade 1 to 9, the majority of students should enroll in vocational education. However, the case of Thailand is different. The majority of Thai students like to enroll in basic education of grade 10 to 12 and continue to enroll in universities rather than vocational education.

How can one promote vocational education?

Many factors need to be taken into account in order to incentivize more students to enroll in vocational education.

Firstly, students need to have guaranteed employment. Such employment should begin when they are still students, an internship of some sorts. This requires a close collaboration between educational institutes and corporates. A symbiosis between the two stakeholders is necessary. This is not widespread in Thailand. The opportunities are still inadequate and limited to a few top students in colleges rather than available equally to all students.

Secondly, the social attitude must change. In Thailand, parents want their children attend higher education and receive bachelor degrees, master degrees and PhD. To change this attitude, it will take time. It goes back to the first point that students need secure employment.

We incorporated these ideas into the creation of Chitralada Technology College. We want to take lead in enabling students who take vocational education with us being able to transfer into higher education later on– making the opportunities for education and employment aligned.

What are the problems of vocational education in Thailand?

The first problem is the social bias. People prefer basic education because its more prestigious. The second problem is students do not know the diversity of career paths. They know only limited choices of teachers, soldiers and doctors. The educational counselling in Thailand needs an improvement.

What does Chitralada Technology College try to do?

There are two institutes within the same umbrella. The first is Chitralada Vocational School and the second is Chitralada Technology College. There are total number of 800 students in these two institutes. Although we are small in sizes, we would like to lead best practices in term of vocational educational practices. There are many programs that we offer for students.

What is your strategy to promote vocational education in Thailand that is different from others?

We have extensive networks of 67 businesses throughout Thailand as well as partnered with other organizations. In total, we have MOUs with more than 80 institutions. We partnered with Singapore, China and Germany.

Can you give examples?

With China, we partnered with Leshan Vocational Technical College. They accept our students’ exchanges for culinary school. There is also Tienjin Sino-German Vocational Technical College that we partner about mechatronics. With Singapore, we work with Singapore Polytechnique. We are beginning to initiate exchanging programs with Temasek and Singapore Polytechnique. Last year, we took Singapore students to Sumutsongkarm to visit local communities who produce shrimp pastes. It’s impressive idea they are creating. There is also Senior Expert Project we partner with Germany. Mostly it is about mechanics and mechatronics.

How do these collaborations help Thailand?

These are successful countries who implemented vocational education and we can learn from them.

There are a lot of pictures of Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn. How does HRH inspire this college?

Her idea is to educate students according to their talents. Those who do not like academic track should have the opportunity to pursue other alternatives. Her Royal Highness plays a monumental role to guide our college’s direction and inspires us to excel. When HRH visits other countries, HRH enables the college to expand our collaboration with successful institutions from abroad.

We want to change the images of vocational students in Thailand from being violent students to be responsible students.

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Indonesia shaping the South East Asian foreign policy of India and Sri Lanka

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Authors: Srimal Fernando and Megha Gupta*

Indonesia with more than 17,000 islands, occupies a key geopolitical position in the ten-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) regional bloc. In the recent past Indonesia has been trying to strengthen its foreign policy outlook both diplomatically and economically through bilateral or multilateral means.

Indonesia with its large population, military capabilities, vast territory and rich natural resources in Southeast Asia is trying to align with India possessing similar power potentialities in South Asia. With this strategy in mind Indonesia has been trying to access the 1.3 billion Indian consumer market and also has been trying to cooperate with Sri Lanka due to its vital geographical position in the Indian Ocean. In this regard, there has been a growing bilateral and trilateral interest among these three countries such that they can tap into the consumer and producer market hence generating higher revenue. However, these three financial hotspots have found themselves in the forefront of challenges posed by globalization and this makes it vital for them to revive their cooperation in different areas.

Over the past few decades, Indonesia has made several development landmarks through restructuring its polity and society. The economy and foreign policy goals of this nation have constructively transformed from President Sukarno to Joko. Furthermore, in the 1980’s Indonesia also took a large step in establishing the regional body of ASEAN. Since then for more than a quarter century, ASEAN has been the most important reason for bilateral and multilateral engagements between Indonesia and the two South Asian countries.

Currently, the two-way trade between Indonesia and India stands at about $18.13 billion according to the Indonesia’s Central Statistics Agency (bps).  With this mutually beneficial relationship, in the coming years Indonesia and India are planning to enhance their bilateral trade to $50 billion. There is also said to be an increased strategic, defense and security partnership between the two which got reiterated with the state visit of the Indonesian President Joko Widodo.

Similarly, the trade between Indonesia and Sri Lanka has doubled from $418 million in 2011 to around a billion dollar in the recent past and the ties between the two is set to improve further with the establishment of a future Free Trade Agreement (FTA). The year 2018 has also marked the 66th Anniversary of the diplomatic relationship between Indonesia and Sri Lanka where the visit of the Indonesian President after 40 years saw the signing of a series of agreements between the two island nations.

Since the Bandung Summit of 1955, the Indonesia’s relationship with India and Sri Lanka has been strong. Later ASEAN has played a leading role in making this partnership grow further. However, India’s cooperation with Indonesia and ASEAN serves as a test bed for the new ideas to grow between the two regions.

Indonesia positioned between Southeast Asia and Australasia is a crucial gateway for India and Sri Lanka to further their foreign, economic and security endeavors in these two regions.

*Megha Gupta, a scholar of Masters in Diplomacy, Law, Business at Jindal School of International Affairs, India.

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