CHIANG RAI – China wants a favour from Thailand, and last week sent a straight-talking official to lobby for it. Beijing is “developing” the Mekong River in a number of ways.
One current project is to clear the waterway so that 100-metre cargo boats can travel the roughly 700km from Yunnan province’s navigable headwaters to Luang Prabang in Laos, to boost trade. There are still sections of the river where such large shipping can’t pass.
China’s request is for permission to clear a channel in Chiang Rai’s Chiang Khong district. Beijing has awarded a contract for this job to the colourfully named Southeast Asian international company China Communications Construction Company Second Harbour Consultants. Company president Ling Leehua, who supervised a study on this issue, showed up at a public hearing on Wednesday at the Chiang Khong district office to appeal for support.
Thailand is the first country where CCCC Second Harbour, Mr Ling and Beijing have run into opposition. In Myanmar and in Laos, when Mr Ling wanted to blast islands and reefs to widen or deepen a channel, there was government compliance and no popular opposition was allowed. In Chiang Khong there are strong feelings against dynamiting the river.
The military government has stayed aloof. The issue is coming to a head, however, and it will soon have to decide between the two sides. Chinese diplomatic pressure for economic development is now more forceful than ever, because in their view only some Chiang Khong islets and reefs are blocking big-ship cargo transport on the Mekong. But local people’s feelings against Beijing’s plans are strong.
The key opposition at the moment is the Chiang Khong Conservation Group. Its membership is in the mere dozens but its cause is simple and understandable. In the Mekong River off Chiang Khong, there are numerous tiny islands and reefs. They are attractive but their value is more important than their beauty. The relatively shallow waters along the river provide fishing and vegetation that supports hundreds or thousands of Thais and Lao who live in the small villages right on the riverbank.
Mr Ling probably thought he was being reasonable and even persuasive when he told last week’s meeting that his company wants to dynamite “just a few” of the islets and reefs. Blasting a channel, he said, would leave “some” of the existing geography unchanged. Actually, blasting the Mekong at Chiang Khong would change a lot. The environment would never be the same, and there is some agreement that the effect on local people will be completely negative.
Geographically, blowing up some of the small islands and river reefs would actually change the position of the Thai-Lao border in Laos’ favour. That alone makes this one of the most important environmental decisions the government of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha will make. And while the Chinese river-navigation team went to Chiang Khong to honestly present its case, only Bangkok can give or withhold permission for Mr Ling and his explosives team to get to work.
If China needs an immediate answer, it must be “no”. There is no longer doubt about Beijing’s goal. It plans to turn the Mekong into a long series of dams, lakes and canals, navigable from Kunming province to the South China Sea, through Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. The economic benefits are clear.
So are the human costs. At the moment, these outweigh the commercial profits. River boats can navigate the Yunnan-Luang Prabang sector, including getting past Chiang Khong. It is unacceptable to uproot a way of life and destroy valuable environment for such marginal merchant improvement.
Source: Bangkok Post