GMS Summit to Hear Burmese PM’s Views on Environment Management

William Boot
Thursday, March 27, 2008

Article from The Irrawaddy Online

Leaders of the six nations of the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) gather for an Asian Development Bank-backed summit in Vientiane on March 30.

The two-day meeting of senior government representatives from China, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Burma is aimed at achieving an "integrated, harmonious and prosperous subregion" of countries through which the Mekong River flows, says the ADB.

However, critics argue that the 60 million people whose lives are linked in some way by the Mekong have little or no say in what is happening to their river and the surrounding areas.

Corruption, unchecked criminality and incomprehensible government in the GMS are damaging the environment, often in the name of economic progress, say non-government organizations (NGOs) campaigning for greater transparency and public involvement in economic development issues.

Tropical timber is being illegally stripped from forests in Burma and Laos and dams are being built or planned, either on the upper reaches of the Mekong in China or on tributaries in Laos and Cambodia. The developments are usually driven by Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese and sometimes Singaporean investment.

More than a dozen hydroelectric dams are planned by China along its stretch of the 4,880 kilometer (3,030-mile) Mekong. Another four hydroelectric systems are under construction or earmarked in Laos.

Most involve dislocation of local communities and sometimes destruction of wildlife habitats, including several elephant herds in Laos.

"Unmet energy demand in the region is questionable, with power development plans often overestimating the actual domestic energy demand," said environment campaigners Zao Noam and Piaporn Deetes in a report for the Thailand-based NGO, Southeast Asia Rivers Network. "This is often a reflection of unsound economic non-transparent decision-making."

London-based NGO Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) reported just last week that "Vietnam's booming economy and the West's demand for cheap furniture is driving rapid deforestation throughout the Mekong River region."

The EIA, assisted by Indonesian NGO Telapak, said the focus of this timber trade is now Laos where criminal gangs operate in defiance of local laws banning timber exports with "high-level corruption and bribery" involving Thai and Singaporean buyers as well as Vietnamese.

The EIA report said it estimates that at least 500,000 cubic meters of logs a year are being carted across the Laos-Vietnam border by trucks.

It is against this background that government ministers and senior officials of the ADB will assemble in Vientiane for two days of meetings, lunches and dinners.

A major feature of the two-day meetings will be a so-called youth forum, led by the Lao Youth Union, which is a direct offshoot of the secretive Communist Party of Laos.

The Mekong and the dams and the plundered forests are not on the agenda.

Among issues before the summit will be a "Road Map for Implementing the GMS Cross-Border Power Trading."

Burma will be represented by Prime Minister Gen Thein Sein.
The agenda lists him as addressing the "Role of Sustainable Environmental Management in Promoting Competitiveness." The environment is not one of the general's strong points, say Burma watchers.

Another environmentalist NGO-the Bangkok-based group Toward Ecological Recovery-warned recently that planned hydroelectric dams in the GMS would displace up to 75,000 people and threaten hundreds of fish species-notably the giant catfish-with extinction.

Even the official Mekong River Commission, made up of the governments of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, has expressed anxiety about the consequences of China's upper Mekong activities.

"Rapid economic development coupled with increasing population pressure is degrading the environment and the [Mekong] basin's resources at an increasing rate," the commission says. "It is imperative to do something now."

Environmentalists and human rights groups have been making similar warnings about hydroelectric dam plans by China and Thailand on Burma's major Salween and Irrawaddy rivers.

The ADB, comprising 67 member countries including the US and Europeans, endeavors to promote development in what it reports to be one of the world's fastest-growing subregions.

The ADB notes the GMS have an average annual economic expansion rate of over 6 percent "in spite of a number of adverse internal and external shocks."

"The ADB no doubt means well, but half the members of the GMS club are gangster economies in which ordinary people-those the ADB wants to help-have absolutely no say in what goes on," said an official with a Western embassy in Bangkok monitoring regional developments who spoke on condition of anonymity. "You could describe the GMS group as four dictatorships, one UN dependency [referring to Cambodia] and one sort of democracy [Thailand]."