11:32 1 March 2017
FEATURE: Thai gov't faces tough test over Mekong development plan
By Chananthorn Kamjan
CHIANG RAI, Thailand, March 1, Kyodo
A new challenge has threatened to create tensions between Thailand and China, as opponents face off with the Thai government over a plan involving the two nations to develop the upper reaches of the Mekong River as a key shipping route.
The Thai Cabinet late last year gave the nod to a scheme -- The Development Plan for International Navigation on the Lancang-Mekong River (2015-2025) -- which aims to improve river navigation by clearing islets and rocky outcrops to allow for the smooth passage of large cargo ships.
Under the project, which covers around 800 kilometers of river, cargo vessels with a gross tonnage of between 100 and 500 would be able to navigate the Mekong from China's Yunnan Province to Luang Prabang in north-central Laos via a stretch that divides Laos and Thailand.
The approval allows China to conduct a survey and decide how best to smoothen the journey for the transportation of goods.
Although China has already leveled some reefs and islands in its portion of the Mekong, there are still islets located in the Thai part of the river, mainly in the Chiang Khong district of Chiang Rai Province, that would have to be cleared, thus triggering grave concerns among local residents and environmentalists.
To calm the opposition, Prayut explained that the plan requires final approval from all four of the upper Mekong riparian countries -- China, Myanmar, Thailand and Laos. The four signed an agreement in 2000, but that alone is unlikely to calm those against the scheme.
The Mekong, which also flows through Cambodia and Vietnam, is recognized as Southeast Asia's main water artery, which local residents of the six countries depend on for many things, including fishing, irrigation, transport and tourism.
A local resident and boat driver, Chadin Chiaplaem, 64, said the demolition of islets in the Mekong would not only affect ecology but also people who use the river for such purposes.
"A number of tourists rent boats for sightseeing along the Mekong, the river would become simply a sailing route if those islets are destroyed", he said.
Pianporn Deetes, Thailand campaign coordinator for U.S.-based advocacy group International Rivers, which works to protect rivers and defend the rights of the communities that depend on them, told Kyodo News that leveling the Thai islets would take away the ecosystem from the Mekong, turning the lively river into just a shipping route. In addition, people would face difficulties in using its resources.
"Along the Mekong River, there are various groups of people using the river, (such as) fishermen, farmers. Many local residents collect water weed -- Cladophora -- during the drought and generate high income from exporting it to Japan...how will locals generate income if the river turns to a shipping route?" Pianporn asked.
She also urged the government to cancel the Cabinet resolution on navigation development, saying national interest is the most important priority.
Pianporn noted the current land-based trade route between China and Thailand, through Laos, is still useful, with many products currently transported within 24 hours. Therefore, convenient trading is not a key reason for the development in her opinion.
"Unknown threats, including security as well as territorial problems, may occur", she said.
Niwat Roikaew, the chairman of the local Chiang Khong conservation group, said the navigation development plan started around 15 years ago, but was suspended due to the opposition of people who rely on the river.
"If you move on the plan, you will see the consequences to the environment and livelihood of locals. The government has to study how it negatively affects the river. It is not the right thing to do, we reiterate our position," Niwat said.
Niwat also told the representatives of CCCC Second Harbor Consultants, the company in charge of the plan, that there are alternatives for transporting goods from China to Laos, such as rail and roads. However, the company said the water route can reduce the cost of transportation.
"You should downsize the cargo ships for mutual benefit. If your only target is the highest benefit, it will damage others. If the government thinks China is the big brother, I disagree because its behavior matches the rogue", Niwat said.
Saowaraj Rattanakhamfu, a senior researcher at the Thailand Development Research Institute, addressed a seminar on the navigation plan, saying that border trade value in the area is worth only 3 percent of all border trade. Therefore, the government should carefully consider whether it is worth moving forward with the project or not.