CHIANG RAI – At the third Foreign Ministers’ Meeting on Mekong-Lancang Cooperation, China’s central government acknowledged Rak Chiang Khong’s concerns about the impacts on people’s livelihoods of the Mekong River navigation channel improvement project, while indicating the possibility of amending or even cancelling the project.
Nevertheless, Chiang Rai’s local environmentalist group Rak Chiang Khong and TEAM Consulting Engineering and Management, the representative of the Chinese project’s owner, have said a study on the environmental impacts of the project was continuing as planned and there had not been any change in progress.
Thailand’s Foreign Affairs Minister Don Pramudwinai said yesterday he had discussed the project with Chinese authorities at the third Foreign Ministers’ Meeting on Mekong-Lancang Cooperation in China’s Yunnan province last Friday.
Don said Chinese officials had acknowledged the concerns of Thai people about the plan, which includes blasting rapids in the Mekong River, and said they were ready to change the scope of the project or cancel it altogether to relieve those concerns.
Despite his statement, a representative from TEAM Consulting, Tuangsaung Sakulkonchak, said there had not been a change to the project and the company was continuing to work on the environmental study and public hearings.
TEAM is representing the Chinese project owner, CCCC Second Harbour Consultants, to gather information as part of an environmental impact assessment study.
Tuangsaung said the study had started in October and would conclude in May. The company held a public forum in Chiang Rai in September and there would be another public hearing in the same area after the study in August next year.
Jirasak Inthayot, coordinator of the local environmentalist group Rak Chiang Khong, or “Love Chiang Khong”, said the study was ongoing and there was still no sign that the project would be cancelled.
The Mekong River navigation channel improvement project is a part of the Mekong-Lancang international navigation development plan for 2015-2025.
The project aims to improve the navigation channel of the Mekong River, which is known as the Lancang in China, to allow large vessels up to 500 tonnes to navigate from China’s Yunnan province to Luang Prabang in Laos.
The Thai Cabinet approved the plan in December 2016, allowing for the study to proceed in Thailand.
The project has been the subject of strong protests from environmentalists and local people along the Mekong River in Thailand, who have said the navigation channel improvements include the removal of rapids in the river, which are indispensable features of the Mekong ecosystem.
A statement by the opposition group said modifying the river by blasting the rapids and dredging its islands would not only destroy the rich ecosystem that sustains the livelihood of local people, but also change the river’s features and affect the boundary between Thailand and Laos.
Meanwhile the Bangkok Post published an editorial saying the attempt by the Chinese company CCCC Second Harbour Consultants to normalize its plans to blast a corridor down Thailand’s Mekong River channels needs urgent comment from the Thai government.
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha promised earlier this year to let the public know when or if he approves this disastrous attack on the Thai environment.
But the Chinese firm last week indicated Gen Prayut’s approval is already a given. The prime minister should dispute this.
The immediate controversy in a nutshell is simple enough. China, all the way up to the central government in Beijing, wants a Mekong channel cleared for its river ships of up to 500 tonnes.
Thailand, all the way up to the central government in Bangkok, has been wary of contesting China’s plan. This is despite the fact the Thai Mekong littoral along nearly 100km of scenic and economic importance is at immediate risk from the Chinese dynamiters.
China and its disappointing apologists on the Mekong River Commission (MRC) have conducted one of the greatest misleading propaganda campaigns to soft-sell this destruction.
TNT “will only be used when necessary”, said a CCCC Second Harbour Consultants public relations expert at a Chiang Rai “public hearing” last week. And “only some islets will be removed” by the blasting.
Another claim is that the company, ever solicitous towards the river’s fish, will not blow up shoals and islets during fish-breeding season. The other, conservationists’ way of saying the same thing is that current fish shelters, fishing grounds and the scenic Chiang Rai riverfront will be destroyed if Gen Prayut agrees — or even, if statements at the public hearing are correct, if he does not.
China is officially concerned that current Mekong depths during the annual dry season permit river boats of no more than 250 tonnes.
To properly expand trade with Laos, Myanmar and Thailand, Beijing claims it needs a waterway able to handle river freighters twice as large, to travel from China to Luang Prabang. That is far downriver from Chiang Rai, and well inside Lao territory. From China’s view, all countries concerned agreed to this 10 years ago.
The Thai public has never been consulted. At last week’s meeting, Chiang Rai governor Narongsak Osottanakorn took the side of the public. He encouraged all Thais to give their opinions. Mr Narongsak also called on the ministries of Foreign Affairs and Transport to become more active on the issue.
Any blasting of the Mekong is irreversible. Up to now, and partly because of Gen Prayut’s promise to speak up, the public response in general has been muted. Local conservation groups around Chiang Rai have protested vociferously.
However, since this dispute involves both the environment and actual loss of Thai territory to an altered river course, much more consultation with the public is necessary.
The government, of course, wishes both to expand trade and to play nicely with China. It will not be easy to say “no” to Beijing on this issue, although that is the only obvious answer. But conservation concerns and the livelihood of Thais along the river must come first.
China’s mistreatment of the Mekong, and its control of upstream water supplies, already shows the problem. Treating the mother of rivers like an international canal is no way to conserve and protect the environment, fishing and Thai people’s traditional lifestyle.
The prime minister and every member of the cabinet concerned must attend to this pressing issue.
It is obvious from last week’s meeting that China is trying to manipulate Thai opinion on the matter, and it is vital the government support all efforts to counter the Chinese claims that blasting the Mekong is a proper treatment of the great waterway.