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

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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

From October to October: Youth and politics in Thailand

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When I think of the 6th and 14th of October, I think back to my years as an elementary school child, when my parents would take my sister and I to events commemorating those days at Thammasat University. At those events, we would meet people who were trying their best to keep the stories alive, keep the history going, so that no one would forget what happened in Thailand.

October was a month that made me feel like I was living in a parallel world; outside of these events, it seemed as if the nation had completely forgot what had happened. None of my friends understood what was going on. I think I only had two history teachers ever make a comment about the 6th or 14th of October.

It was a month of great importance for my father. Every year, as we got closer to those dates, he would start talking about the events. He would give interviews, be involved in talks and lectures and projects, and yet, it seemed as if absolutely no one else in the country had any clue what was happening.

He asked us every year if any teacher or text book mentioned what had happened in October, and every year, the answer would be the same: no.

Sometimes I worried it hurt his feelings, but he never deterred. It seemed, at moments, he and his friends were speaking into an empty void. But one year, when I was in high school, a middle school student attended one of my dad’s lectures and told my father he was interested in learning more about October, and why it was important to Thailand. My dad talked about that student for days after, even encouraging me to add him as a friend on Facebook.

Years later, when I look back to that time, I realize the reason he kept on pushing was quite simple: if he could teach one young person about what happened, if he could get one person to even care about October, if he could make sure younger people kept learning about it,it would be successful in paving the way for change.

If he had ever feared that the movement would not get passed on to the younger generation, this past month has proved him wrong.

The power of young people has always been underestimated in Thailand. But there is nothing more powerful than the thought of having no say in our future, of seeing other countries move forward in ways we can’t because we haven’t faced the past. There is nothing more frustrating than asking for the chance to draw up what the future should look like for us and getting our requests shot down.

But the baton, it seems, hasnow been passed down from the time my father was speaking into the void; it just kept getting passed around without a receiver. Now, the youth are ready to take on the task of helping others face the past. We are ready to hear about what has had happened in our country’s history, and take on the demands of the youth of the past and move it forward.

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Southeast Asia

Crisis and Future of the Regime Stability in Southeast Asian Countries

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The world has encountered a crisis several times. In facing a crisis, every nation’s leader will need to strive to prevent the existing disaster from having a major impact on the country’s economy. This is because the economic crisis can have consequences for the reputation and the stability of the political regime itself.

Unlike the crises caused by unregulated economic practices such as during the Great Depression in 1929 or the Global Financial Crisis in 2008, the catastrophe that the world currently confronting today is prompted by the COVID-19 virus. This new type of disease has eventually sparked into the global pandemic and already created tremendous negative disruption toward economics and businesses around the world.

Of course, the panacea for this problem is not easy since it takes the extraordinary capability of the state to bear with a load of health costs and prevailing economic burden to its society.

Most of the countries having a really hard time coping with this ‘black swan’ event. While, for some emerging economies with weak public health capacity, and slow policy process has already struggled with the socio-economic impact of the virus.

In this backdrop, although countries in Southeast Asian (SEA) regions have already made an impressive economic achievement post-Asian Financial Crisis in 1997, they have to swallow the bitter pill again as their economy agonized from this significant blow.

The countries within the ASEAN have suffered a great economic loss due to the pandemic. According to the latest forecasting report by the Asian Development Bank (ADB),the GDP growth rate of Indonesia and Laos has been contracted to minus 1 percent and 2.5 percent respectively. Other nations such as Cambodia, Malaysia, and Singapore have been predicted to befall averagely under minus 4 percent. While the Philippines and Thailand have even major severe shocks as their economy sharply contracting in excess of minus 7 percent. Only several states such as Vietnam, Brunei Darussalam, and Myanmar have performed slightly better.

This phenomenon is indeed very upsetting, especially because these countries are highly dependent on foreign investment, trade, and the tourism sector as the main engine to drive economic growth respectively.

The tricky part comes when the state cannot provide its citizen with adequate support and accountability. Apart from the debate about which ideological system is best in dealing with a pandemic, we need to understand well that political turmoil is often triggered by the inability of the state to meet the needs of its people. The public health emergency coupled with the economic crisis, and problematic policy selection can swiftly turn into unrest since the society vigorously looking for justice and protection over their wellbeing.

Compared to other ASEAN member states, Vietnam and Singapore are effectively tolerate the impact of turbulence because of their impressive management of public health systems. While other nations in the region seem to have different stories.

In Indonesia, regime stability has been affected by COVID-19. From the beginning of the outbreak, among other ASEAN member states, Indonesia was the latest one who got struck by the virus. But it turns out that Indonesia becomes a country with the largest infected cases in the region. The lack of government coordination and assistance in tackling the pandemic has made the economic condition of the country worsen. In addition, the most recent enactment of the omnibus law of job creation that predominantly in favor of businessmen and investors has triggered the wide-spread protest toward the government across the archipelago since early October.

Likewise, the Philippines also has to face the fatal economic damage caused by the pandemic as the unemployment number and poverty rates have significantly risen. Despite the government’s extreme militaristic measures to contain the pandemic, the number of infected cases and death ratio still upsurging, second only to Indonesia. Yet, this has sparked both national and international criticism on President Duterte’s repressive approach.

In Malaysia, the government must engage with the second wave of the pandemic. After generally succeed in the first attempt to tackling the outbreak, the infected rate has steadily increased particularly in Sabah, after holding local elections on 26 September. Apparently, the political upheaval began to appear when Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin insist to put the country under a state of emergency. Although in the end the proposal was later rejected by Malaysia’s King Sultan Abdullah, the declaration to suspend the parliament was roundly condemned by opposition figures in the country and also mounted concern among Malaysians.

Amongst other countries in the SEA region, Thailand currently in the state of a serious political crisis mode provoked by a series of anti-government demonstrations. The Thai people demanding to reform the Thai constitutional monarchy and removal of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha from his office. This situation has made Thai authorities announced the country to entered the emergency decree. Though the protester vigorously attacked the government solely for the political reform motives, the issue of the economy has virtually played a quite larger part. Previously, the country’s strategy in responding to the outbreak of the disease domestically had relatively efficacious. However, the long period of the lock-down policy has brought down deep frustration on the government since the economic inequality, poverty rate, and desperateness for the job among the young generations have ominously increased.

Conclusively, the pandemics of COVID-19 have become an interesting setting for testing the stability of the political regime in ASEAN. The virus has considerably contributed as a catalyst for the economic crisis. Clearly, the pattern of political turmoil and civil disobedience has gradually begun to appear as the countries started to be overwhelmed by the collision of the crisis.

It’s no doubt that Indonesia and the Philippines will deeply fall into another economic recession which can potentially ignite another massive civil unrest toward the regime. Malaysia similarly could face another heated political situation. Yet, the country’s capacity to handle the crisis still can make the regime to be relatively stable. While Thailand on another hand will face difficult circumstances. As the public has already tired of their flawed constitutional system, civil unrest will most likely continue to take the place. Consequently, the future political-economic outlook of Thailand in the near future will somewhat look worrisome.

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Southeast Asia

Quad, Quad Plus, and the Indo-Pacific: The Core and Periphery

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Indo-Pacific has been seen as one construct which identifies US strategy and brings in subscribers to the concept; thereby adding value to this concept. At the same time, it has been working on defining political, economic and security contours of this geo-political imagination. Indo-Pacific has defined as the fusion of two oceans -Indian and Pacific. It has brought the regional powers-India, Japan and Australia within the whole narrative. There are issues related to the Indo -pacific and how it will address security and political concerns but given the fact that Chinese aggression has brought in more countries into its fold, the idea is gaining momentum.

The pronouncements made by the UK, France and Germany as their approach towards Indo-Pacific shows that there is synergy which might emerge between the Euro- Atlantic and the Indo-Pacific. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi did propose that Indo-Pacific should become an inclusive concept and opened a window for China to be included into the configuration. However, this was never reiterated by Modi in the subsequent speeches and it seems that the bon homie between the two Asian powers dissipated because of Chinese aggressive moves in the Indian borders.

The evolution of Quad 1.0 which gave heft to Malabar exercises, and involvement of Singapore and Australia into larger scheme of things dissipated as the Australian government withdrew in later editions after succumbing to Chinese angst. The Quad 2.0 which gained steam in the early 2018 has now come a full circle with Australia again joining the Malabar exercises scheduled to be held later this year in the Indian Ocean. The latest approach has brought strategic momentum. The Quad 2.0 has outlined few of the larger objectives during the Tokyo submit earlier in October, and it is seen that in terms maritime security, space, cyber and encrypted communication networks there are possibilities between the four countries. India has already signed the BECA agreement and there is a possibility of greater understanding in technology sharing and intelligence domain between the four partners.

The Quad 2.0 is seen as having teething problems because of the changing political dispensation in Japan and the US while India and Australia are steadfastly showing their commitment to the cause. However, the Quad needs a blueprint and also a joint status paper which should outline the utility and purpose of this formation. With ASEAN the question of centrality has been resonating and even the former Singapore Permanent secretary has stated that Laos and Cambodia are unnecessary baggage in the ASEAN homogeneity and consensus as the two countries has been acting as surrogates of China. The problem of placing ASEAN centrality in larger objectives of Quad and Indo-Pacific would grow in future.

There have also been proposals of Quad plus which should include South Korea, Vietnam and New Zealand for the purpose of expanding the logistics and support network, and undertake concerted measures for protecting maritime commerce and build institutional linkages. While Quad Plus identifies the new players into this circuit but it fails to recognize Indonesia and other such regional players which might be useful in meeting the long-term objectives.

One of the aspects which has been highlighted that Indo-Pacific should work in the field of economic integration and bring about various regions such as South Asia, Southeast Asia into one umbrella of Indo-Pacific Economic Corridor. While digital and scientific cooperation has been envisaged but concerted plan of action for building resilient supply chains among the subscribers of the Indo-pacific might be a good initiative.

Along with Quad and Quad plus there are many trilaterals which have been taking shape and have made a unique strategic matrix. The trilaterals which have been taking shape include France, Australia and India. The other two trilaterals are Track II -Australia, Japan and India, as well as India, Australia and Indonesia, thereby expanding the expanse of the trilaterals acting as nodes in the overall edifice. Therefore, if Quad plus expands and Indo-pacific geographic outlines remains as envisaged then there would be a structural overlap between the two. India within its Ministry of External Affairs has already commissioned a new Oceania division which would look into the work of divisions such as ASEAN, Indo-Pacific and the Southern Asia. 

The need of the hour is to develop the priority areas for the Quad.  One of the areas that Quad can develop capacities is developing maritime security architecture with willing subscribers and logistics providers. Cyber is another area where Quad can develop joint partnerships and also support building better digital architecture. The important aspect is that within maritime security architecture Quad need to develop Quad grid which should integrate ports with facility for the navies of Quad countries to congregate, work out interoperability, and develop cooperation in maritime domain. This should include maritime theatre awareness and conducting joint Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) operations. The maritime Quad grid can comprise of Djibouti, Diego Garcia, Andaman, Darwin, Guam and Okinawa-the big ‘W’ in the Indo-Pacific. Also, developing cooperative mechanisms in sectors such as rare earths, interlinking defence research networks and securing channels of communication through sharing of satellite data would give required teeth to the Quad.

As already discussed, it is likely that Quad plus and Indo-Pacific would run parallel and even develop symbiotic relationship which might expand in political, economic and strategic domains. Quad would address defence and strategic requirements while a possible Indo-Pacific Regional Cooperation institution would address political coherence. In economic field the inclusion of India in Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) would help in transition of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation to Indo-Pacific Economic Cooperation. While these propositions are there on the table but the realization would be critical to make these ideas and geopolitical imaginations get a concrete shape.

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