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.
ASEAN Summit Meeting 2019: Expectations and Norms
The 2018 ASEAN Summit had posed a valid question with regard to the compatibility between ASEAN centrality and the Indo-Pacific concept. ASEAN addressed this impending question through its approach paper on the Indo-Pacific. However, the question remains that whether ASEAN can remain central to the Indo-Pacific or would address regional issues in routine manner which have become victim of ASEAN norms without any strong recourse to regional mechanisms related to security. ASEAN policy of consensus building has made ASEAN more predictable in terms of its yearly communique and discussions. During the last three years ASEAN Communiqué have outlined lofty ideals and impressive blueprint for future but the core security issues have been sidelined or accorded with a low priority listing, in the face of bon homie between ASEAN member states and dialogue partners. The fault lines on major economic issues, South China Sea, environmental problems such as Indonesian haze and the template for industrial revolution 4.0 needs better focus and strategy along with new ideas and compatible processes.
ASEAN strategy on the efficacy of Indo-Pacific manifests itself in the document which highlights that ‘ASEAN centrality as the underlying principle for promoting cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region, with ASEAN-led mechanisms, such as the East Asia Summit (EAS), as platforms for dialogue and implementation of the Indo–Pacific idea, while preserving their formats’. The dichotomy with regard to ASEAN position is that Indo-Pacific is more of a strategic and regional security construct. The subscribers of Indo-Pacific are not very accommodating towards China in the architecture despite the fact that few dialogue partners have expounded the need for the construct to be inclusive. The long drawn US-China trade war and the barb of words on the increasing Chinese assertiveness in South China Sea have made matters more complicated. Further, Vietnam has been highlighting the Chinese bullying tactics in Vanguard bank and also its repeated foreign ministry briefings have stressed that China is trying to make non-disputed zones as contentious zones. Over a period of time, it is expected that US and Vietnam might enter strategic partnership agreement with defence and security cooperation as a priority. This would jeopardize Chinese designs in South China Sea and also bring the Eagle closer to the Dragon’s chest.
The incompatibility between ASEAN centric approach in even regional security apparatus envisaged under Indo-Pacific is a concern. ASEAN has imposed the recurrent and repeated thoughts of Indo-Pacific as inclusive zone and a zone for promoting interconnectedness and dialogue between partners. ASEAN position is understood in terms of maintaining its relevance but it must recognize the fact that Indo-Pacific was not an ASEAN process to serve its interests. The dialogue partners’ interests are involved and they might or might not accept ASEAN diktats on the subject. In that case ASEAN would be seen as the fog horn without much contribution to larger security issues. The synergies envisaged between ASEAN and Indo-Pacific is flawed because ASEAN as an institution has failed in terms of providing maritime security but has been successful in information sharing through institutional mechanisms. Given the limited naval capacities that most of the ASEAN members have, with the exception of Singapore, the efforts for regional maritime security needs a better approach. The naval and maritime security cooperation under ASEAN needs better coordination with dialogue partners and structural support.
The ASEAN summit meeting 2019 might have to address the following issues in a more focused way rather than template responses which now anyone can anticipate. Firstly, it will have to make clear commitment among the members of maintaining the status quo and promising that the skirmishes between the ASEAN member states on South China Sea(SCS)should not be advantageous to China. China has been advocating negotiations through bilateral consultations, incrementally happening in this region. Secondly, ASEAN will have to stop meting out step-motherly treatment to the interest of Vietnam because of the intrinsic Cold war apprehensions. Thirdly, ASEAN must make a strong stance with regard to finalizing the draft Code of Conduct with China on terms acceptable to all the claimant parties rather than towing the Chinese instructions. Fourthly, the dialogue partners have also failed the security initiatives undertaken by ASEAN and it would be prudent for the Dialogue partners to commit to a new framework which might be known as Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) Plus framework which provides natural corollary to offensive action undertaken by any dialogue partner against any ASEAN member, leading to its eviction from the ASEAN and ASEAN centered mechanisms. The consensus laden framework at times leads to constraining action in the regional organization. Lastly, the ASEAN members must institute a South China Sea high powered committee to bring about dialogue and also raise relevant issues of concern without any fear or favour.
It has been seen that the deployment of Chinese survey ship in Vanguard bank for long duration of time defies any logic with regard to any scientific experiments or serious survey. China has used the survey ship Haiyang Dizhi 8 as a decoy for its strategic military activities and the deployment of large coastguard and naval vessels are a testimony to it. The withdrawal of the survey ship just before the ASEAN summit shows that China does not want SCS to figure anywhere in the ASEAN Communique and thereby taking evasive measures. Also, there is no guarantee that China would not return to the same area in future. The international community must take note of Chinese tactics and must issue a strong rebuttal. Mike Pence, US vice President speech (October 24) during a lecture at Wilson Center said, “…. make it clear to Beijing that no nation has a right to claim the maritime commons as territorial seas”. He accepted that, “the Chinese Coast Guard has tried to strong-arm Vietnam from drilling for oil and natural gas off of Vietnam’s own shores’’. It clearly shows that Chinese activities were illegal and were strong arm tactics, the signs of an irresponsible UN Security Council member. Vietnam would also be joining as non-permanent member of Security Council in 2020, and therefore it is imperative for the country to raise the South China Sea issue at this important forum. Vietnam would also be assuming the ASEAN Chairmanship in 2020. It has been seen in the past chairmanship of 2010 that Vietnam has avoided larger discussion on South China Sea. This shortsightedness was detrimental to the interests of Vietnam due to which the South China Sea as a major security hot spot was avoided in subsequent ASEAN meetings. Even in ADMM plus meeting this has to be raised and better rebuttal of Chinese action in Vanguard Bank is needed. China has already established the bilateral consultation mechanism with Malaysia on South China Sea, completely undermining the role and responsibility of ASEAN as a legitimate organization for such discussions. This also forewarns that China might wean away other claimants from the South China Sea consultations, forcing Vietnam to protect its own interest in not so obliging ASEAN forum. During this year ASEAN Summit Vietnam must do lobbying with dialogue partners as well as claimants to put South China Sea as a main point in the East Asia Summit discussion and also in 35th ASEAN Summit Communique. This would help getting necessary traction in international and regional media.
In conclusion, one might witness that in this ASEAN summit the resonance of ‘One ASEAN One Identity’, ASEAN Community, sustainable development partnership, marine pollution, haze, culture, strategic trust, defence cooperation, military medicine, cyber security, transnational crime, and industrial revolution 4.0 would be discussed. The ASEAN would have to identify its approach to evolve as the regional organization furthering the needs of the region and consolidating itself as one homogenous identity. Interestingly, the core values of ‘ASEAN way’ and consensus might get reflected in the communiqué under Thailand’s chairmanship. However, much depends on Thailand’s priorities in highlighting issues and taking cognizance of the developments in economic cooperation, security and building strategic trust while keeping the ASEAN values intact. The biggest question is whether ASEAN is ready for its role in ASEAN 4.0. Vietnam would have to make assertive diplomatic approach and not a hesitant demeanor to protect its EEZ and territorial waters threatened by Chinese encroachments.
Progressive Development of Democracy in Asia-Pacific Region
The Asia- Pacific region is becoming an interesting entity to study as of the various dynamics it entails. This region is characterized with the gradual elimination of poverty resulting from regional integration, cooperation between proximal states, inflow of capitals, and development initiatives. At the same time territorial disputes and regional rivalries also prevail in the region. Likewise, the democratic patterns of the region have undergone a democratic transition.
There has been a prevailing notion that the Asian region has been dominated by authoritarian regimes with very little or no room for democracies. These circumstances have gradually evolved and democracies are consolidated and made their way into the region. Likewise, all the regimes have found democracy as instrumental to elevate their stature in international standing.
Indonesia particularly has been an ardent supporter of spreading democracies beyond its shores. Similarly, circumstances in Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand have paved way for democracies to make its way through electoral process.
Historically, the struggle for democracy in the Asian region commenced following the decolonization from the colonial powers. The struggle for democracy suffered as the instability and ethnic rebellions resulted into chaos and created such a vacuum that was filled by elites and left no room for democracy. Secondly, the second wave of democratization initiated in the mid-1980s followed by uprisings against corrupt and oppressive regimes such as the Marcos regime in Philippines in 1986, the removal of military-backed regimes in South Korea and Taiwan in 1987.
Following the fall of Soviet Union, Mongolia also made a transition to democracy. Likewise, this was followed by the resumption of a civilian government in Thailand in 1992.In 1993, democracy made its way to Cambodia with the intervention of the United Nations. Furthermore, Indonesia’s Suharto Regime fell apart in 1998 and in 2001 the U.N made endeavors to bring democracy to East Timor after the termination of the civil war.
As a result of these transitions, Indonesia, South Korea, Philippines, Thailand and Japan have established strong democracies in the region. In 1997, South Korean voters elected Kim Dae Jung, the region’s most prominent democracy activist to power. Similarly, Taiwan, and Mongolia are also the examples of successful democracies. In March 2000, the island first democratic transition of democratic power of power in which the opposition leader, Chen Shui-Bian became the president, this was a historic moment for the burgeoning democracy for Taiwan.
In Nepal, following the peace agreement between Maoist insurgents and the government there came a replacement of the royals with the republic after few years and a new constitution was introduced in 2015.In 2008, in Bhutan, the constitutional monarchy substituted absolute monarchy followed by its first political elections. Likewise, in Myanmar, the military paved way for democracy and it materialized into a multiparty election in 2015, the first of its kind in 20 years
Today when different political parties run for elections, human rights is one of the crucial factors on which they compete on, this is opposed to the earlier practices of oppressing the public. Similarly, Mongolia has also encountered with positive changes following the democratic transition along with competitive democratic elections
On the other hand, there are exceptions as well such as China and North Korea. China still has one party system and it poses obstruction to a free and fair elections. Similarly, North Korea has an authoritarian regime which has an absolute control over the lives of individuals. Human rights are violated, freedom of speech is prohibited, regime is worshipped and Kim Jong Un is not accountable for any of his actions. Even, the media is strictly controlled by the government and only a limited number of channels are streamed on the media. Internet and any western content is also banned in North Korea.
Though there are calls that democracy is waning away, for example in Cambodia there has been a severe crackdown on political opposition. Similarly, there have been curbs on freedom of speech along with censorship. Likewise, the military coup in Thailand in 2014 has also affected the democratic values. Also many argue that the democracies in the region are diluted to a large extent yet the fact of the matter remains that democracy is gaining momentum. According to the EIU Democracy Index, when comparing the level of democracy, measured on a 10 point scale from 0 (authoritarian) to 10 (full democracy) over the past ten years, the average democracy score in Asia has increased from 5.05 in 2006 to 5.41 in 2016.This region is making progress at an expedited rate as compared to other regions of the world.
One of the reasons for the burgeoning democracies is the empowerment of the youth. Through the Social media youth has become more empowered and they do not hesitate to speak on the matters on which they feel that the government has acted irrationally upon. Similarly, anything that highlights the misdoings of the leaders becomes viral on the internet, therefore the leaders are subjected to accountability and it ultimately steers in democratic values.
Coming to the conclusion there are a number of measures which can accelerate the progressive development of democracy in any region. For example, democracy should be considered as a bottom-up process where the individuals are considered the foundational elements and should be taken in this regard. Individuals should be involved in the decision making through the effective delegation of power. Likewise, Urbanization is also one of the triggers for augmenting democracy since it leads to more awareness which ultimately demands the notion of accountability. Likewise, if the youth of the country fully involved in the political affairs then it can avert the prospects of circumventing from democratic values. If these patterns prevails then democracy will nurture to a great extent in the region.
Indonesia’s new electric car may disrupt its relations with Japan
Authors: Muhammad Zulfikar Rakhmat, Dimas Permadi, and Ramadha Valentine
President Joko Widodo has recently signed a presidential regulation on electric cars. The regulation instructed several things, including forming a coordinating team to support the implementation of the electric vehicle program.
Jokowi hopes that electric vehicles will be able to replace fuel oil vehicles.
Due to air pollution in large cities such as Jakarta which continues to increase, Indonesia sees it important to begin using electric cars for the general public.
Jokowi also views the opportunity for Indonesia to develop electric cars because Indonesia has the main raw materials to build them. In Jokowi’s statement, he stated: “We know that 60 percent of the key to electric cars is the batteries and we have the components to make them [such as] cobalt and manganese in our country,”
To implement the agenda, the Indonesian government is likely to collaborate with various partners, including China. Although it is still a prediction, this was indicated by China’s intention to move its electric car companies to Indonesia, namely BYD Auto Co., Ltd and JIC. Moreover, Chinese car manufacturer Dongfeng Sokonindo (DFSK) also intends to produce DFSK E3 Glory cars in Indonesia which will be marketed in ASEAN. This strengthens the possibility that China will play a role in Indonesia’s plan.
China’s entry into Indonesia’s plan for electric cars could be a reasonable move and may be welcomed by Jakarta. Nonetheless, there is a potential that it may disrupt Jakarta’s long ties with Japan as its largest partner in the automotive sector.
Japan: Indonesia’s long-time automotive partner
When it comes to automotive, Indonesia has been relying hardly on Japan. As reported by the Association of Indonesia Automotive Industry, the majority of cars used in Indonesia are Japanese ones. CNN’s polling also shows that Indonesians prefer Japanese cars more than those produced by Europe, Korea, and China.
Another case which exemplifies the strong automotive ties between Jakarta and Tokyo is the Indonesian-made car “Proton” which was made under a special collaboration between Indonesia and Suzuki.
Considering the position of Indonesia as a country that has just stepped in to the business of electric cars, Indonesia seems to be very careful in involving foreign investors. Indonesia sees goods from China as relatively cheaper and of comparable quality.
In addition, Chinese companies applying for relocation in Indonesia was also considered as a serious step to strengthen the relations that had been built by the two countries.
Indonesia’s plan, which was conveyed by the Deputy for Infrastructure at the Coordinating Ministry of Maritime Affairs, Ridwan Djamaluddin, to involve China in making electric cars is likely to disrupt the stability of its long-time cooperation with Japan.
This could be true, especially if we look at how Indonesia has increasingly become a battleground between Beijing and Tokyo such as in the recent bidding for the construction of a railway between Jakarta and Bandung, whereby China succeeded in winning the bid. Japan, which has made a number of preparations to obtain Indonesia’s permission to participate in the project, feels disappointed as expressed by its Chief Cabinet Secretary, Yoshihide Suga.
Looking at this, electric cars can be another battleground between Japan and Indonesia.
Indonesia may take careful steps
To this date, it remains unclear whether Japan or China who will have a considerable take in Indonesia’s move towards electric cars.
Nonetheless, in the midst of the potential rivalry between Beijing and Tokyo, Indonesia may take careful steps. The government in Jakarta will try to ensure that it would not hurt the two sides. It is likely to weigh the interests and opportunities of both parties.
On the one hand, it needs to maintain close relations with its long time partner in the automotive industry, while on the other hand it sees considerable opportunities in cheap Chinese raw materials.
The three authors are analysts on Indonesian political economy
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