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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

A struggle for rule of law: Detained Bahraini footballer catapults Thailand to centre stage

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Mounting pressure on Thailand to release from detention soccer player Hakeem al-Araibi has not only refocussed international attention on alleged abuse of human rights and due course of law in Bahrain but also the apparent continued ability of autocratic and authoritarian regimes to enlist global police organization Interpol in efforts to silence critics.

The arrest by Thai authorities of Mr. Al-Araibi, acting on an Interpol red notice arrest warrant issued despite the fact that he had been granted political asylum in Australia, raises questions about the effectiveness of Interpol safeguards against exploitation of its powers.

It is also a reflection of a far broader global battle for continued rule of law that is being challenged by autocrats, authoritarians, populists and nationalists on multiple fronts.

“It’s really emblematic of this breakdown of multilateral institutions, particularly those premised on western liberal democratic values which in the wake of the cold war we saw come into ascendance. These institutions were not built with the internal safeguards and mechanisms to protect them against bad faith actors. Once you let them inside the gates, nothing prevents them from poisoning the well,” said Jonathan Reich, an attorney who has worked with Russian business people and anti-corruption dissidents targeted by Russia via Interpol.

Mr Al-Araibi’s case further highlights the incestuous and inextricable relationship between sports and politics that international sports associations strenuously deny.

Nowhere is that relationship increasingly more evident than in the Gulf with Mr. Al-Araibi’s arrest; the politicization of the Asian Cup as a result of the rift between Qatar and its boycotting detractors, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia; Saudi and UAE efforts to substantially increase their influence in global soccer governance, and the Saudi-Qatar dispute over broadcasting rights.

Qatar’s winning of the Asian Cup on Friday was as much a sports achievement as it was a political statement of the country’s resilience and ability to host the 2022 World Cup that had been called into question from day one and was targeted by its Gulf detractors since they declared a diplomatic and economic boycott of the Gulf state 18 months ago.

Mr. Al-Araibi has been kept in prison to allow Bahrain to formally request his extradition even though Interpol withdrew the non-binding red notice a week after issuing it. He was on Friday remanded for another 60 days in prison as a Thai court held hearings on the request.

The focus on Interpol safeguards as a result of Mr. Al-Araibi’s continued detention and the organization’s inability to ensure that its mistakes can be corrected was bolstered this week by documents leaked by dissident Turkish journalists in Europe that allege abuse of Interpol procedures by Turkish law enforcement and intelligence.

The documents allege that Turkey has obtained through Interpol information about dissidents in Belgium, Germany and Poland on the basis of purported false charges that nonetheless failed to result in the issuance of a red notice warrant.

Mr. Al-Araibi’s detention since November when he arrived with his wife in Bangkok for their honeymoon and the Turkish leak are but the two latest incidents that point fingers at Interpol procedures.

Fair Trials, an international criminal justice watchdog, has documented numerous cases of abuse of Interpol procedures, applauded the organization for efforts to avoid abuse, and called on it to introduce further safeguards.

In one prominent case, Interpol was put in an embarrassing position in October when its then president, Meng Hongwei, was arrested on a visit to his native China after the police organization had accepted a resignation letter purportedly signed by Mr Meng and tendered by the Chinese government, which said he was being probed over suspected corruption. Interpol said it had no choice but to comply with the request.

Mr. Al-Araibi’s case bolsters the call for further safeguards and focuses attention on the need for mechanisms to counter the fallout of abuse.

A player for Bahrain’s national team, Mr. Al-Araibi was arrested in November 2012 while walking to a cafe in Bahrain to watch a Real Madrid-Barcelona game and beaten in detention. He was accused of vandalizing a police station at a time when he had been playing in a match that had been aired on live television.

Mr Al-Araibi spent three months in detention and was sentenced to ten years in prison but managed to flee to Australia before the verdict was issued by a judge, who like Asian Football Confederation (AFC) president and world soccer body FIFA vice president, Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa, is a member of Bahrain’s ruling family.

Mr. Al-Araibi’s case erupted as Sheikh Salman is running for another term in AFC elections scheduled for April.

Mr. Al-Araibi asserted that Sheikh Salman, who at the time of his arrest in the Gulf state was head of the Bahrain Football Association (BFA) and has long been accused of involvement in the arrest and abuse during mass anti-government protests in 2011 of some 150 Bahraini athletes and sports executives, had failed to respond to requests for help from the player’s family and lawyers.

Sheikh Salman has said he had not received a request for assistance. Sheikh Salman has consistently denied any association with the 2011 events despite the fact that Bahrain’s state-run news agency linked him to the arrests in several reports at the time.

Conspicuously, Sheikh Salman has remained silent about Mr. Al-Araibi’s case while the AFC only this week called for the first time for his return to Australia in a statement by its vice president, Praful Patel.

The AFC this week said Mr. Patel rather than Sheikh Salman was responsible for Middle Eastern affairs. It said Sheikh Salman had been recused from overseeing the region because of potential conflicts of interest. It was the first time that the AFC disclosed the recusal.

FIFA secretary general Fatma Samoura and International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach have been calling for Mr. Al-Araibi’s release for several weeks.

For Bahraini exiles like S. Yousif Almuhafdah, a Berlin-based human rights activist, Mr. Al-Araibi’s case is one way of focusing attention on Bahrain and trying to ensure that others are spared the soccer player’s fate in a world in which the cards are stacked against them.

Says Mr. Almuhafdah, who was detained in the same cell as Mr. Al-Araibi before both men left Bahrain: “Nothing will change any time soon. But we have a responsibility to those who stayed behind and remain behind bars.”

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France returns to Laos

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The geographical location of Laos, a small landlocked state surrounded by China, Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam and Cambodia, has made it imperative for this country to pursue a well-balanced multi-faceted foreign policy that hinges on the development of a mobile system of economic and political counterbalances.

Regional integration is key to the economic development of Laos. A major integration mechanism is ASEAN, of which Laos has been a member since 1997. 99% of Laos’ residents believe that their country’s membership in this organization yields tangible economic benefits; 92.5% say it has improved their personal financial standing.

As a member of ASEAN, Laos is committed to developing relations with China, Thailand and Vietnam but pursues a preferential policy as regards each of them.

China remains number one investor in the Laotian economy ($ 8.5 billion) with the bulk of the finances channeled into the mining, transport infrastructure and energy sectors. In 2016, trade turnover between the two countries reached $ 2 billion , a significant amount for Laos with its less than 7 million population. The largest Chinese-Lao project is the railway from Kunming Province (PRC) to Laotian capital, Vientiane. China is ready to inject more than $ 6 billion in the project

Meanwhile, Laos has been stepping up cooperation with Vietnam, which maintains a wait and see position in relation to China. Laos views Vietnam as a political and ideological counterweight to China. Cultural ties with Vietnam serve as an additional means of preventing the transformation of Beijing’s economic influence into the ideological one. Members of the ruling People’s Revolutionary Party of Laos receive training in Vietnam.

With a view to diversify foreign economic and foreign policy relations, Laos is developing contacts with France, whose colony it used to be in the past. Paris is seen as a remote neighbor of Laos, a partner in the economic and cultural spheres. Since 1991 Laos has been a member of the international organization for the cooperation of the francophone states “Francophone”. According to the French Embassy in Vientiane, the number of Laotians who speak French amounts to 3% and has been increasing over the past 12 years.

Laos is home to two branches of the Institut Francais du Laos (IFL) – an organization that promotes the French language and culture abroad; the French language is on the curriculum of three of the country’s five universities. In March 2018, Laos was visited by leaders of “Francophone”, and in May 2018 – by representatives of the Francophone University Agency. The official mission of the latter is to create a new French-language communication and educational space. The visits resulted in the signing of agreements on further cooperation with both organizations.

The period that saw a catastrophic fall in the demand for the French language in Laos since the mid-1970s is coming to an end. Nevertheless, the Lao Ministry of Education has designated English as a compulsory subject in schools for the 2019 academic year. The decision was prompted by the currently prevailing position of English worldwide and Vientiane’s intention to develop economic ties not only with the Francophone, but also with the Anglosphere.

Along with the cultural influence, France is trying to build up its economic presence in Laos. In May 2018, a French delegation led by French Ambassador Claudine Ledo visited a special economic zone in the province of Savannakhet to examine the prospects for French investment. For Laos, France is the ninth largest trading partner accounting for only 0.2% of the Lao market but it holds top position among non-Asian countries in the volume of investment.

Trade turnover between Laos and France has been fluctuating in recent years between $ 34 and $73 billion. France is prepared to invest in the Lao economy but the volume of investment is determined by the extent of Vientiane’s openness to foreign investment flows and the ability of the Lao economy to ‘digest’ them.

The year 2019 will mark greater cooperation within ASEAN for Laos. Last year, economic issues within ASEAN prevailed over political ones in connection with trade conflicts between the United States, the European Union and the People’s Republic of China. ASEAN countries are planning to launch the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership program (RCEP).

If the program is fulfilled, it will become the largest trade agreement in the world. The cumulative GDP of the countries participating in it makes up 25% of the global GDP, the population accounts for 45%, and the trade turnover amounts to 30% (5). Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea may all be attracted to the program. This will provide Vientiane with more opportunities to diversify foreign economic relations amid China’s growing financial presence in Southeast Asia.

France was the first European country to sign a partnership agreement with ASEAN. Paris regards this organization as key to its policy in the Indo-Pacific region and a major economic partner. The volume of French investments in the ASEAN economy in 2017 reached € 16 billion. France’s share in the ASEAN market is 1.6%. This figure has not changed for ten years.

Paris aims to give cooperation with ASEAN a new impetus, which will impart more momentum to French-Lao relations.

First published in our partner International Affairs

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On Refugees… And Myanmar: It’s Not Just The Rohingya

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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… And my life’s cold winter that knew no spring; Of my mind so weary and sick and wild,  Of my heart too sad to sing.  — Paul Laurence Dunbar

The world now has more refugees than at any time since after WW2, more than the population of Britain.  They are often the consequence of wars usually instigated by great powers directly or through proxies.  Civil strife accompanied by the demonization of minorities, killing and expulsion is another reason.  Such is the story of the Rohingya in Burma, or Myanmar as it now likes to be known.

It is a country with the river Irrawaddy as a central artery.  Bordering it is the heartland, peopled by the Bamar who make up 68 percent of the population and are Buddhist.  The Rohingya are Muslim, look different and have lived in Rakhine state for at least five centuries.  During WW2 they supported the British while the Buddhist Burmese supported the Japanese, their coreligionists.  It brought lasting enmity.  After years of propaganda and vilification, the Rohingya were stripped of citizenship.  Not unlike Nazi Germany targeting Jewish people, new restrictive laws curtailed liberties, marriage rights, even children — limited to two.  The vilification turned most neighboring Buddhist villages against the Rohingya, and those attacking and burning their villages were often these neighbors when not the military.

In this latest violence, 90 percent of the Rohingyas were driven out and about three-quarters of a million sought refuge across the border in Bangladesh.  The story does not end with the Rohingya for there are other threatened minorities in Burma occupying the periphery in the north and south:

In northern Shan state, a simmering conflict with the Taang National Liberation Army dating back to 1963 has displaced 300,000.  The army emboldened by the relatively meek response to the assault on the Rohingyas have intensified their efforts also against the ethnic Kokang’s  Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army.  The consequence is an addition to the tens of thousands that had streamed from earlier conflicts over the border into China.  Also in the north the largely Christian Kachin minority formed the Kachin Independence Army to defend their villages.   The ongoing conflict has displaced more than 135,000 internally.  And in the south the conflict with the Karen (Buddhist, Animist and 15 percent Christian) resulted in over 100,000 refugees … this time in Thailand, plus a 100,000 diaspora to the rest of the world including some 65,000 in the US.  Myanmar’s perverse antipathy towards all its minorities makes a mockery of the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to Aung San Suu Kyi, its leader.  Is meaningful censure an answer, or is innate tribalism an unconquerable primitive amygdala response?

The top five refugee hosting countries might also come as a surprise.  Amid all the news of Angela Merkel’s generous offer to accept everyone entering her country, Germany is not one of them.  Shortly thereafter her party lost by-elections and she is departing.  The actual figures are Turkey (3.5 million), Pakistan (1.4 million), Uganda (1.4 million), Lebanon (1 million) and Iran (0.98 million).  The chaos in countries adjoining them (think of Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Somalia) explains why, and the great power with a finger in each pie, when not actually baking it, is also not difficult to discern.

Imagine being forced to flee with just the clothes on your back or just a bag.  A word here also for the people who had to do just that to escape wildfires.  They all have our heartfelt sympathy, often taking a concrete form through donations to help.  A happy new year to everyone and a better one for the unfortunate among us.  We can try to make it so.

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