Lowy Institute

The sudden announcement, reported by Elliot Brennan on The Interpreter on Tuesday, that relatives of the Thai Crown Prince's third wife have been stripped of their royally-conferred honorific titles because of links to a corruption scandal raises yet again the problem for outsiders of commenting on a vital aspect of contemporary Thai politics: the role of the Thai monarch and the royal family.

Despite the fact that this development will be hotly discussed at all levels of Thai society, local press coverage has essentially been limited to factual reporting, as Elliot  indicated.


King Bhumibol (L) with Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn (obscured). (REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha.)

So while it may possible, both in Thailand and elsewhere, to suggest that this development has significance for the the issue of succession to King Bhumibol, even this is to risk prosecution under Thailand's draconian lese-majeste legal provisions, which have been applied to foreigners as well as to Thai citizens, including Australian Harry Nicolaides for his alleged criticism of Prince Vajiralongkorn in a self-published novel.

So what options are open to any interested but non-specialist observer who would like to know more about the significance of these developments?

First stop, not least for Australians, is New Mandala, the online publication established in 2006 by Professor Andrew Walker and Dr Nicholas Farrelly and hosted by the ANU's College of Asia and the Pacific. Both Andrew and Nicholas have long-established credentials as Thai studies specialists.

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Providing regular coverage of Thai politics, New Mandela is host to courageous commentators who are prepared to risk their access to Thailand by offering frank and fearless analysis. Nowhere is this more true than in two contributions that bear directly on the latest developments in Thailand: these extended commentaries by Patrick Jory and Lee Jones on Andrew MacGregor Marshall's new book, A Kingdom in Crisis.

It goes without saying that A Kingdom in Crisis will never be on sale in Thailand, as the author has long been identified by Thai authorities as an unacceptable critic of the Thai establishment. Also guaranteed not to be available in Thailand's bookshops is Paul Handley's 2006 The King Never Smiles. Citing these two books is not necessarily an endorsement of all they say. For instance, the distinguished Australian scholar Grant Evans, who died recently, offered a  critical view of much that was in Handley's book.

Alongside these important contributions, mention must also be made of British academic Duncan McCargo's article, 'Network Monarchy and Legitimacy Crises in Thailand,' published in 2005, seen by many as a template for understanding Thai politics.

More generally, the background against which contemporary Thai politics are unfolding is helpfully covered in Good Coup Gone Bad: Thailand's Political Developments since Thaksin's Downfall, edited by Pavin Chachavalpongpun. It is notable that the editor has had his Thai passport withdrawn by the military regime that took power in May for his critical views on this development. The product of a symposium held under the auspices of the Singapore Institute for Southeast Asian Studies in 2012, the book has immediate relevance to the current Thai political scene.

In his foreword to Good Coup Gone Bad, the noted ANU-based historian of Thailand, Craig Reynolds, writes: 'Even at the best of times Thai politics has not been easy to understand, and now, late in the reign of a revered and activist monarch, it is even more difficult to comprehend.' So the suggested sources offered here are only a start towards understanding an extraordinarily complex subject.

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As reported in The Interpreter in June (Mekong: Laos Makes an Empty Concession), Laos' agreement to review its planned 32-metre high Don Sahong dam in the far south of the country was in no sense a sign that the Government in Vientiane intended to abandon this much criticised project. A recent op-ed in Bangkok's Nation newspaper by Viraphonh Viravong, the Australian-educated vice minister of Energy and Mines, provides a firm indication of Vientiane's intention to bring the project to completion.

Viraphonh Viravong's reputation for blunt talking and a determined pursuit of the goal of making Laos a 'battery' for the production and sale of electricity to its neighbours was apparent in relation to the Xayaburi dam, now well under construction. The complex story of this dam was covered over many months in The Interpreter with the final decision to proceed blindsiding the dam's critics. 

Now in his 24 October op-ed Viraphonh Viravong is talking tough again.

Taking aim at critics of the Don Sahong dam he notes, accurately, that the Mekong River Commission (MRC) cannot stop the building of dams on the Mekong no matter how much activists might want it. 'The MRC is not a building permits office', he writes.

Moreover, he claims that the Lao Government and the dam's developers are addressing issues such as dry season fish migration. Critics of the dam are concerned that it will block migration as a result of the fact that it is to be built on the one channel through which fish migrate throughout the year.

There can be no clearer sign of Laos' intentions than the final sentence of Viraphonh Viravong's op-ed: 'By now, they (activists opposing the dam) should realise that the Lao government will not be deterred from its commitment to develop clean, renewable hydropower, a source of national pride for the Lao people and a sustainable source of electricity for the region.'

Photo by Flickr user International Rivers.

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The suggestion that members of Cambodia's Islamic minority have joined ISIS —a claim vigorously denied by leaders of this community — has briefly focused attention on a religious group in mainland Southeast Asia that is little understood by other than a few specialists.

The last time there was a similar flurry of media attention directed towards Cambodia's Islamic community was when it was revealed that Hambali (Riduan Isamuddin), the claimed mastermind behind the 2002 Bali bombing, had been living in Cambodia for six months in late 2002 and early 2003 before his arrest in August 2003 in Thailand. While details remain obscure, it appears that Hambali received assistance while in Cambodia from foreign Islamists—one Egyptian and two Thai. The extent to which he dealt with the Cambodian Islamic community beyond living in a small mosque in suburban Phnom Penh has never been established.

Even to write in terms of the Cambodian Islamic 'community' is misleading, or at very least inadequate. In the 1950s, King Sihanouk, in an effort to find a way to emphasise that followers of Islam were just as much part of the Cambodian nation as the majority Buddhists, coined the term 'Khmers Islam' or 'Islamic Cambodians'. Recently, I was told in Phnom Penh that this term is no longer in favour among the followers of Islam themselves.

Moreover, its use, like the readiness to describe the followers of Islam in Cambodia by their ethic identity as 'Chams', is itself unsatisfactory (as an example, this misleading catch-all use of the term Chams occurs in a 2010 Phnom Penh US Embassy cable released by Wikileaks). Not all followers of Islam in Cambodia are, in fact, Chams, an ethnic group originally from central Vietnam whose ancestors migrated to Cambodia over many centuries. There are still a significant number of Chams living in Vietnam itself.

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Of the total number of members of the Islamic community, which may be as many as 500,000 in a total population of 15 million, an uncertain proportion, perhaps 10-15%, are Malays, the descendants of settlers from sections of modern Malaysia and Sumatra. Moreover, there is an important division within the Cham community between those who pray only once a week and who regard themselves as the preservers of traditional Cham culture, and those whose observance of Islam is more orthodox.

As already noted, detailed academic study of the Islamic community in Cambodia in modern times has been limited, with the work by William Collins of particular importance, though the reference I drew on for my 2004 Lowy Issues Brief, The 'Khmer Islam' Community in Cambodia and its Foreign Patrons no longer appears to be available on the web. Other more recent contributions include publications by Agnes de Feo and Alberto Perez.

The Legacy of the Khmer Rouge

The Islamic community suffered grievously during the Pol Pot regime, with an estimated 95,000 dying from executions, overwork, hunger and disease out of what was then a total population of 250,000. Mosques were destroyed, with some being used (with the deliberate intention of causing grave offence) as pigsties, while members of the community were forced to eat pork.

At the time the Pol Pot regime was overthrown, the followers of Islam in Cambodia were in a shattered state. Their plight was recognised, at first slowly, but later on a widespread basis, by fellow Muslims in Southeast Asia and the Middle East, and funds began to pour in to Cambodia to assist them. It is not an overstatement to note that domestic and international reaction to the suffering the community endured during the Khmer Rouge period has had a transformative effect on Islam in Cambodia

The contemporary scene

The true scale of external aid to the Islamic community is almost impossible to quantify. Individual donations are often reported in the Cambodian press, with funds coming from the government of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Development Bank in Jeddah, for instance, as well as from private individuals including in Dubai. But in the case of Malaysia, there has been some reluctance to specify the size of the largesse.  

Equally, it is difficult to place precise numbers on the Islamic 'missionaries' who have come to Cambodia to preach a more orthodox observance of Islam, in particular Dakwah Tabligh and Wahhabi Islam. What is apparent is that there are now many more mosques, with new mosques often built in a Middle Eastern architectural style, than was the case before 1970. A range of reports refer to the adoption in many Cambodian Muslim villages of stricter separation of the sexes in communal gatherings and the wearing of Middle Eastern dress, including women going fully veiled.

Equally uncertain is the precise number of Cambodian followers of Islam studying abroad in southern Thailand, Malaysia and the Middle East. The links with southern Thailand and Malaysia go back as far as the nineteenth century, if not before. While some foreign observers have questioned whether Cambodian Muslims have participated in the endemic violence of southern Thailand, no convincing evidence of such action has ever been presented.

Hun Sen's CPP government has repeatedly claimed that it is both comfortable in its dealings with the Islamic community and alert to any suggestions that members of the community might be vulnerable to extremist teachings. The mufti of Cambodia's Islamic community operates with government approval, but more importantly leading members of the community have held important offices during the CPP's long tenure in office (eg. figures such as Mat Ly and Ahmad Yahya, the first after a period of working with the Khmer Rouge, the latter as secretary for social affairs and as a translator of the Koran into the Cham language).

As a long-time observer of Cambodia, I have been struck during recent visits to Phnom Penh by the extent to which, in the eyes of my ethnic Cambodian interlocutors, the Islamic community is seen as firmly apart from the Buddhist majority, however much the Government seeks to present a picture of 'Khmers Islam' as an integral part of the nation. These views come from a limited and admittedly elite sample of local observers. But one theme was pervasive: the belief that the Islamic community in Cambodia is more rather than less integrated into the national community than once was the case.

It has long been the case that many Muslim villages have existed as separate entities, and the suggestion is that this separation has been reinforced in villages located along the Mekong and Tonle Sap Rivers as a result of the growth of orthodox Islam. The tendency for followers of Islam in Cambodia living in distinctly separate villages is, according to some observers, less marked among Malay members of the community.

On one point there seemed to be general agreement among those I have spoken to over recent years: the extent to which the majority of the Islamic community remains poor and lacking in modern education. Whether this makes members of the community more vulnerable to extremist blandishments is an open question.

 Photo courtesy of Flickr user Edwin Lee.

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In Cambodia, a country of remarkable ethnic unity (close to 95% of the population is ethnically Khmer) and with the religion of Buddhism dominant, religious extremism has been absent. What is new and notable is the emergence of political activism among some Buddhist monks. 

Over the past year there have been frequent reports of Cambodian Buddhist monks taking part in anti-government demonstrations.

Some of these demonstrations are linked directly to protests mounted by supporters of the Cambodian National Rescue Party headed by Sam Rainsy, and others to such issues as garment workers' wages and calls for the protection of environmentally threatened forests. Very recently, Buddhist monks have been among those protesting against the agreement reached between Australia and Cambodia for the transfer of asylum seekers to Cambodia.

By comparison with the role of monks in Sihanouk's Cambodia during the 1950s and 1960s, when the Buddhist sangha was largely passive, or to a limited extent supportive of the ruling regime, such contemporary political activism offers a marked contrast with the past.

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Some qualification is nevertheless required. During the worst years of Vietnamese control of Cambodia in the early decades of the 19th century it is clear that Buddhist monks played an important part in sustaining a shared sense of Cambodian identity. And in the period of French colonialism the sangha was involved in resisting, if only passively, efforts by the French to interfere in what it saw as fundamental elements of the country's culture, for instance, the French attempt to introduce a romanticised written form of the Cambodia language. Moreover, Buddhist monks were at the forefront of the one major protest against French rule during the Second World War, the so-called 'Revolt of the Parasols' in 1942, which took its name from the fact that monks were carrying their saffron-coloured umbrellas as they protested. All this noted, it is correct to say that before the victory of the Khmer Rouge in 1975 Cambodian Buddhism at no stage played the overt political role seen elsewhere in Southeast Asia, as in Burma both before and after independence or, in very different circumstances, in South Vietnam in the 1960s.

Under the Khmer Rouge Buddhist observance was abolished and all monks forced to defrock, though as the most authoritative Western observer of Cambodian Buddhism, Ian Harris, has noted in his important book, Buddhism Under Pol Pot, there have been two instances of monks continuing to live out their role despite general regime opposition. The Vietnamese invasion and the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge regime at the beginning of 1979 saw the slow re-emergence of Buddhist practices and a sangha closely linked to and controlled by the People's Republic of Kampuchea (PRK) government. While the degree of government control has now been loosened since the early 1990s, there is good reason to endorse Ian Harris' view expressed in his book published that the 'problems affecting the sangha remain deep and seemingly intractable.' Noting the presence of 'corruption and stagnation', Harris aptly observes that the 'Buddhist order is, in fact, the mirror of a wider society'. In this regard, the Supreme Buddhist Patriarch, Tep Vong, is widely recognised as having been, and still remaining, a firm supporter of Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party.

It is against this background that some Buddhist monks have become more active in playing overtly political roles, taking advantage of the right they now have to vote and increasingly turning to the use of social media. It is difficult to provide a precise figure for those who are involved in this activism. The Independent Monk's Network for Social Justice (IMNSJ) established in 2013 claims a membership of 5000. This figure needs to be placed against a total membership of the sangha between 5-7000. It appears that political activism is mostly found among monks based in Phnom Penh.

It is unlikely that there will ever be a return to the pattern of the past in which Buddhist monks played little active part in the political life of Cambodia. At the same time, and just as Ian Harris has reflected on the sangha mirroring society at large, the evidence of the past two years suggests that a sea change has occurred in Cambodian politics. This change is a reflection of a sharp demographic shift so that over 50% of the population are now under 30 and the staggeringly rapid rise of new social media. Human rights groups are now more active and outspoken, so that it should not be a surprise that change has also taken place among the Buddhist clergy.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Luc Forsyth.

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The death of Grant Evans at the age of 66 is a notable loss for Australian scholarship on Southeast Asia and a sad event for his many friends. As one of a few academic specialists on Lao society and history anywhere in the world, his death at such an early age leaves a gap that will not be easily filled. And the fact that he will no longer be present to welcome visitors to Vientiane robs us of a host who was always generous in sharing knowledge and wise advice as well as a drink and a meal in his house beside the Mekong River.

I was privileged to know Grant for more than twenty years, but I knew of his writing long before we met. In a frank interview published in 2009, Grant was typically forthcoming in charting his scholarly and political experience, which led him from being, in his own words, on the 'New Left' to being an observer for whom empirical observation and research were the essentials of his work. Describing the genesis of his 1984 book, Red Brotherhood at War, written with Kelvin Rowley, he noted that he and Rowley had 'the theory but the one thing we did not have was, of course, the experience of being here (in Indochina). Because to experience full-on communism is a kind of shock actually.'

The need to sift fact from ideology was to be one of Grant's continuing concerns, whether in his book on the controversial 'Yellow Rain' allegations of the 1980s, which he wrote about in The Yellow Rainmakers (1983), to the book that made his academic reputation, Lao Peasants Under Socialism (1990). His firm conclusion in this latter publication was that there was no point in collectivisation, the policy pursued by the Lao communist government, because 'Without all kinds of accompanying changes, collectivisation just leads back to a sort of feudalism...Why should you even get together? And the answer is there is no point, because peasant agriculture is just about as efficient as it can be.'

My own connection with Grant came as the result of being asked to act as the general editor of a series of short histories of the countries of Southeast Asia. Finding someone to write a short history of Laos posed a problem, but it seemed to me that Grant, despite being trained in anthropology and sociology, could do the job, as indeed he did. His Short History of Laos: The Land In Between, published in 2002, is a definitive reason for concluding that the writing of history does not always have to be left to historians. What is more, Grant ensured that this readable and remarkably comprehensive book would later be published in Lao, an effort in which he was assisted by his long-term publisher in Thailand, Khun Trasvin Jittidecharak, the dynamic head of Silkworm Books.

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Following the publication of his short history and the important The Politics of Ritual and Remembrance: Laos Since 1975, Grant embarked on what at first glance seemed like a doomed, or at very least controversial, project, a book on Lao royalty. This at a time when the government was doing all it could to diminish the importance of the country's monarchy. The result, published in 2008, again by Silkworm Books, The Last Century of Lao Royalty: A Documentary History, is both a treasure trove of information and a wonderful collection of images garnered by Grant over many years to document a once vital part of Lao history. And it can be purchased in Laos.

After many years of teaching at the University of Hong Kong as Professor of Anthropology, Grant chose to move to Laos permanently and to live in Vientiane, where he was formally associated with the Ecole française d'Extrême-Orient as a senior research fellow. He leaves a wife and young daughter.

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The view from Phnom Penh

With opposition deputies having taken their places in the National Assembly after a prolonged boycott, calm pervades Cambodia's domestic politics, at least for the moment. Opposition leader Sam Rainsy's ambition to lead the country is undiminished.

On the other hand, in the perceptive observation made to me earlier this week by the head of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia, Youk Chhang, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) was lucky not to have won last year's elections. If it had done so, the problems of implementing its populist economic and financial measures would have been exposed; there is simply no way the country can afford the CNRP's age-pension plan, while the proposals for a greatly increased minimum wage would have been firmly resisted by the owners of the garment factories on which the country relies for the bulk of its export earnings.

Yet none of the present (and probably temporary) calm means that endemic major problems have been addressed. Land grabbing by powerfully linked commercial interests continues. Illegal logging is rampant with no evidence the Government is prepared to address the environmental degradation that accompanies clear felling, and the loss of state revenue. Corruption on a massive scale also continues as a leitmotif of contemporary Cambodia.

A striking feature of the contemporary scene is the way which delegations of provincial protesters come to the capital on a regular basis to lay their complaints before the Government. This echoes a form of protest that existed in both pre-colonial and colonial times. But the protests seldom if ever have an effect, as the protesters against the Lower Se San 2 dam have found. This dam, now under construction in Stung Treng province in northeastern Cambodia, is slated to produce 400MW of electricity when completed. It is already resulting in displacement of villagers from the dam site and is expected to have a serious effect on fish stocks in the Mekong River. Although the Government rejects the assessment, there are good reasons to accept modelling that indicates the loss to annual fish catches as the result of the dam could be in excess of 9%, serious indeed in a country in which 80% of the population's annual protein intake comes from fish caught in the Mekong and its tributaries.

Against this domestic background, Hun Sen's government is showing more skill in managing its foreign relations than many observers recognise.

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Relations with China, Cambodia's largest aid donor and foreign investor, continue to be at the heart of policy. Yet the Government must find a way to balance this relationship with its continuing concern for good relations with Vietnam, a concern made more complicated by Sam Rainsy's attacks against the Vietnamese for alleged illegal immigration into Cambodia and his readiness to play the irredentist card in relation to Cambodia's lost sovereignty over territory in southern Vietnam. (Despite the claims of some leading local politicians, Cambodia lost control of this territory before the onset of French colonialism in the 1860s.)

The Government has proved capable of maintaining good relations with both China and Vietnam. One reason this has been possible is the presence in the Vietnamese politburo of a pro-China faction, which means Cambodia's balancing act is understood rather than being a cause for criticism.

Developments in Thailand since the May coup had a short-term effect, as many thousands of Cambodian migrant workers flooded back home, fearful that their jobs might be lost in a military crackdown. When this fear proved unfounded most of them returned and both governments worked together to make sure that there was no major disruption of an arrangement that is beneficial to both countries: Thailand is assured of cheap labour and Cambodia benefits from the remittances.

The heat has gone out of the Preah Vihear dispute for the moment and a well-placed source told me that the Cambodian commander at the temple is under strict instructions not to engage in any activity that could provoke a Thai military reaction. From the Thai side, there appears to be a similar concern to prevent this long-standing issue from once again causing dangerous exchanges between the two countries.

Although deposed Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra is said to maintain a residence in Phnom Penh, there has been no evidence that Hun Sen is anxious to make his previous association with Thaksin a feature of contemporary policy. His assessment appears to be that the new military government in Bangkok is there to stay for the immediate future, and that it is in Cambodia's interest to work with it.

Photo by Flickr user Karen.

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Cambodians with copies of a Khmer Rouge Tribunal verdict. (Flickr/ECCC.)

Interpreter readers will be aware that I have frequent criticised the Khmer Rouge Tribunal (the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia, ECCC) for problems of corruption, lack of cooperation from the government, the sometimes dubious results stemming from the tribunal's character as a body with both Cambodian and international participation, and the glacial slowness of its procedures.

So it was salutary to sit down with Youk Chhang, the head of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, in Phnom Penh last week to hear his views on the tribunal.

Youk Chhang and his family suffered under the Khmer Rouge and he has made it his task to assemble the widest possible archive of evidence for the events that occurred under Pol Pot's regime. The Documentation Center has also worked to ensure that knowledge of the Khmer Rouge period is taught in Cambodian schools and that the general population has the opportunity to understand what the tribunal has been trying to achieve.

Youk Chhang has no illusions about the problems of the tribunal, making many of the same points that have formed the basis of my criticisms. But overall he argues that the tribunal has been a worthwhile exercise. He offered an analogy. Think, he said, of the tribunal as being like a house. It is buffeted by storms, rained on, even struck by lightning, but if it is still standing after all those problems it has justified its existence.

Because of the tribunal, many hundreds, even thousands of Cambodians have been able to share their experiences in testimony before the tribunal or by attending the tribunal's sessions to see the court processes in action and the defendants having to appear for judgment. In outreach programs undertaken by the Documentation Center, Youk Chhang and his co-workers have found that their compatriots are concerned about 'justice' and do believe that despite its slowness, the ECCC has been able to deliver justice, even if defining the term is difficult for many with whom they talked.

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Today's long-anticipated conviction Nuon Chea, Brother Number Two in the Khmer Rouge regime, and Khieu Samphan, Head of State of Democratic Kampuchea, for crimes against humanity brings to an end their long running trials in the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia, which was established in 2006. Their trials began in 2011.

Originally there were four defendants on trial, but Ieng Sary, the former foreign minister in the Khmer Rouge regime, died while the trial was under way, and his wife, Khieu Thirith, was judged unfit to stand trial because of mental illness.

Yesterday, the court outlined terms of a new case against both the men convicted today. They are now to be charged with genocide.

The charges relate to the actions of the Khmer Rouge regime which killed many hundreds of thousands of Khmers Islam (or Chams, a substantial Muslim minority in Cambodia), as well as tens of thousands of Vietnamese. Give that both men are in their eighties, it is quite possible they will die in prison before a verdict is reached.

The tribunal has been subject to much criticism, some of which I outlined as long ago as 2007 in my Lowy Perspective paper, The Khmer Rouge Tribunal: An Ambiguous Good News Story. There is no doubt that the tribunal's continuing existence is an annoyance to Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has made clear his reluctance to see it indict new defendants in accordance with his view that his compatriots should 'dig a hole and bury the past'.

Many Cambodians will be glad that a verdict has been reached, but there will be others who feel the whole process has taken too long and has failed to tackle the broader issue of the continuing presence in high places within government of many who previously were closely associated with the Khmer Rouge regime. It is a sentiment reflected in the above CNN video interview with the activist Theary Seng, whose family suffered grievously under the Khmer Rouge. The video is accompanied by a thoughtful commentary from Youk Chhang, the founder of the Cambodian Documentation Centre.

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The possibility, indeed probability, that Laos will build its controversial 32m-high dam at Don Sahong on the Mekong River just above the Lao-Cambodia border has strengthened following the Mekong River Commission (MRC) Council meeting in Bangkok on 26-27 June. This is despite an apparent concession by the Lao delegation, with Vice-Minister for Energy and Mines Viraphonh Viravong agreeing to six months of 'consultation' with the other MRC members (Cambodia, Thailand and Laos) over the dam's construction.

In making this concession, Laos has shown some readiness to acknowledge criticism of the planned dam, which has come principally from Cambodia and Vietnam (Thailand has been much less forceful). There will now be a formal exchange of ideas and plans relating to the proposed dam.

But as MRC chief Hans Guttman said after the meeting, 'Under the MRC's regulations there is no need to suspend or stop work on the project during the (consulation) process.'

The Lao Government, and Viraphonh Viravong in particular, has shown itself adept at gaming the rules and regulations stemming from the 1995 Mekong River Agreement. In the case of the Xayaburi dam, which has now advanced to actual construction, Laos blindsided fellow MRC members by simply ignoring until the last moment the requirement for consultation, and then announcing that the dam was under construction.

With Don Sahong, the Lao Government adopted another approach, claiming the dam was being built on a 'tributary' of the Mekong rather than the mainstream and that, under the agreement, this meant it only had to give a notification of its intentions. At the very least this was a terminological sleight of hand. The site of the planned dam at Don Sahong is on one of the many channels into which the Mekong splits when it reaches the region of the Khone Falls (pictured). Until last year it had never been suggested that the dam site on the Hou Sahong Channel was other than part of the river's mainstream.

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So the Lao concession in Bangkok seems very much like a fig leaf for the Government's ultimate intention to build the dam; work has already begun on preliminary construction such as housing and bridges. The plan was always to begin work on the Hou Sahong Channel itself in December 2014, so consulting for six months would only delay those plans for a month.

The Lao Government and the Malaysian firm contracted to build the dam have repeatedly argued that means will be found to mitigate the effect of blocking the Hou Sahong Channel, which is the only route through which large numbers of fish are able to migrate throughout the year. The Government and builders claim this will be possible by improving the morphology of other channels.

The science bearing on this issue appears beyond dispute: only Hou Sahong offers year-round migration. For this channel to be blocked threatens major disruption of fish stocks both below and above the Khone Falls. There is an abundance of scientific literature on the issue, with this World Fish Center summary the most easily available. A more recent article in Nature expands on the damage likely to flow from construction of a dam at Don Sahong.

The Lao Government understandably wants to improve its foreign exchange earnings by embracing hydropower generation, which is why Xayaburi is being built and why it wants to build Don Sahong. But the costs, including to Laos itself in terms of lost fish stocks, is high. Even if there is an argument to be made that the dam at Xayaburi will have a relatively limited effect on the overall fish catch, this is not the case for Don Sahong.

Photo by Flickr user Global Water Forum.

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The recent publicity given to Asian antiquities held by the Australian National Gallery and the Art Gallery of New South Wales, which are alleged to have been stolen from India, are only a small part of a much wider issue that has received international attention recently.

Some major museums in the US have now returned or agreed to return objects identified as having been stolen from Cambodia, while others are still reluctant to do so. A partial summary of the current situation is provided on the Chasing Aphrodite website, which was actively involved in the Australian cases.

Against this background, a recently posted article from the British Journal of Criminology provides a fascinating and disturbing account of how antiquity theft from Cambodia has operated over the past several decades.

The article makes clear the extent to which Cambodia's unsettled history since the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge in 1979 has aided the criminal groups which have exploited both the political circumstances of the country and the often desperate poverty of villagers living near important cultural sites. At the same time, the readiness of foreign collectors to disregard issues of provenance has meant that there has been a ready market for stolen antiquities, particularly in Bangkok.

Photo by Flickr user Tim Moffatt.

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In a Bloomberg story published yesterday, the chief executive officer of the Mekong River Commission (MRC), Hans Guttman, is quoted as saying that 'there is still an opportunity for coming to an agreement' over issues connected to mitigating the impact on fisheries of the projected Don Sahong dam in southern Laos. Such an agreement, he appears to indicate, might be reached when the four MRC countries — Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam — meet in Thailand later this month.

As I reported in March (Mekong: Laos confirms Don Sahong dam plans), Laos has previously indicated that it will begin construction of the dam in December.

There is little doubt about the opposition of Cambodia and Vietnam to the construction of Don Sahong; Thailand has been less vocal officially despite vigorous criticism from domestic NGOs. But it is difficult not to think that the MRC chief executive is putting the best possible interpretation on statements made by Lao government representatives, in particular the vice minister for energy, Viravong Viraphonh. Responding the queries put to him by Bloomberg, the minister said 'Laos remains committed to exporting hydropower and becoming the battery of Southeast Asia' and, most importantly in terms of likely future developments, that 'We are confident that the proposed project will cause no significant impact to the full mainstream flow of the Mekong, nor will it affect fish migration or sediment passage to any degree that would harm downstream communities.' It's worth noting that Viravong Viraphonh has been at the heart of Laos' Mekong policy for several years  and played a key part in bringing the Xayaburi dam to the construction phase.

Is any of this deserving of the suggestion that the river could become 'another South China Sea'? That is, a dispute which not only involves the countries along its course (which includes China) but also the US? This is a view recorded in the Bloomberg article, drawing on a CSIS paper published in April.

For the moment, this seems to be over-egging an already rich pudding, one with sufficient ingredients for tense relations along the river's length. Whatever the judgment, it would seem more than likely that Laos will continue with its Don Sahong plans and that the threat to fish stocks will become a real and present issue.

Photo by Flickr user Hector Garcia.

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The military coup led by General Prayuth has shown that it has no time for half measures, with the nation's constitution suspended (apart for the chapter relating to the monarchy), the senate dismissed and an uncertain number of leading political figures, activists, journalists and academics called into detention. The media is under tight control and there are reports today of books critical of the Thai political system being culled from the shelves of bookshops.

Against this background, two thoughtful posts from New Mandala are worthy of consideration, the first by Thai constitutional lawyer Kemthong Tonsakulrungruang, and the second by the ANU's Andrew Walker, one of Australia's best-informed and long-time observers of Thailand.

In the weeks to come, one particular issue will be worthy of attention: the redrafting of Thailand's constitution. Many commentators have argued that the 1997 constitution, whatever its shortcomings, was the fairest ever embraced in modern Thailand. So the question is, what will be the character of the new constitution? Here a post-coup satirical opinion piece in the Bangkok Post is worthy of attention, when it suggests that there could be grossly unfair distribution of electoral boundaries under a military-inspired new constitution, with Chiang Mai, a centre of Red Shirt support dramatically disadvantaged by comparison with Surat Thani, a sourthern bastion of the Yellow Shirts.

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A soldier in position at Bangkok's Democracy monument yesterday. (REUTERS/Damir Sagolj.)

The quote that heads this post is from a hard-hitting and critical editorial in today's Bangkok Post, which really says it all at the broad level of analysis.

General Prayuth Chan-ocha was a leading figure in the 2006 coup that ousted the Thaksin Government, yet that coup and the events that followed showed conclusively that the Thai military is neither equipped to run the country nor possessed of particular wisdom in seeking to install a government that will attract wide popular support.

So why has the military acted? Considered in the most generous light, it is possible to believe that the coup was mounted to prevent a continuation of sporadic violence between the contending political groups which could have widened into a more serious confrontation, taking many lives. But the military's actions are just as likely to provoke greater violence, as the Red Shirts, who will now more than ever feel disenfranchised, consider whether peaceful demonstrations can ever serve their interests.

The very concept of democratic government is under attack in Thailand as the actions of the military appear to give support to the People's Democratic Reform Committee led by Suthep Thaugsubahn.

Just as the Duke of Wellington in the nineteenth century was opposed to the developments of railways since they would allow the common people to travel, Suthep and his supporters really do not believe that the Red Shirts have the same right to vote and to determine who governs the country as do the supporters of what Duncan McCargo has called the 'network monarchy'.

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Making this attitude all the more worrying is the fact that Thai society has changed dramatically over the past three decades, with the population in the rural regions better educated and more determined to play a role in the political process. And while it is true that the Red Shirts gain their greatest support from these rural regions, it is wrong to describe them as simply discontented peasants. There are Red Shirt supporters in the outer regions of Bangkok as well as in the industrialised areas to the east and southeast of the capital who cannot be classified as rural peasants. Even academic opinion is divided; it would be wrong to think that it is all on the side of the middle-class opponents of the Red Shirt movement.

Lying behind recent developments is concern for the future of the monarchy, given the advanced age of the king. Discussion in Thailand is handicapped by the draconian lese-majeste law, but it is an unsettling issue, as supporters of old ways and old values fear that a future Red Shirt government might devalue an institution that has played an important part in Thailand's recent history.

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The Thai Army in Bangkok today. (REUTERS/Damir Sagolj.)

The Thai military announced this morning that it was intervening to impose martial law throughout the country but insisting that its actions did not represent a coup. The statement, signed by the army chief, General Prayuth Chan-Ocha, referred to a 1914 law that, it said, gave the military the right to intervene during times of crisis.

In a prescient opinion piece published just hours before the army's announcement, the Post's contributing editor, Atiya Achakulwisut, argued that martial law was likely to be imposed in the current circumstances, with no progress towards settlement of Thailand's long-running political crisis.

Most interestingly, she argued that there were some attractions in a military intervention for both sides of the political confrontation. For the People's Democratic Reform Committee, led by Suthep Thaugsuban, martial law could be seen as the first step towards the full-scale military involvement that would benefit their ultimate aim of dismissing the interim government. Conversely, the Red Shirts, despite being likely to oppose the martial law decision, could see the army's actions as likely to reinforce the feelings of their supporters that they are facing continuing opposition from elite-linked groups in the capital.

The opinion piece concludes, surely accurately, that the army's imposition of martial law will not solve Thailand's current problems.

With detailed reactions from the main parties involved in the crisis still some time away, all that can usefully be said at the moment is that the army's decision brings a new complication to an already difficult situation. It will not, in itself, result in an early or easy solution to a fundamental and even existential problem in the nature of Thailand's governance.

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Tent city in Lumpini Park, Bangkok. (Flickr/Earthworm.)

Bangkok's streets were quiet yesterday following the Constitutional Court's widely expected dismissal of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra for an abuse of power. In 2011 she appointed a figure linked to her family as secretary-general of the National Security Council.

From an outside observer's point of view, the decision appears to reinforce the view that the court's sympathies lie with those who oppose the Red Shirt movement generally and the Shinawatra family in particular. As Thomas Fuller commented in the New York Times, the decision 'highlights (the court's) overtly political role'.

But the court's ruling, which also included the dismissal of nine other members of Yingluck's government, still leaves other cabinet members in place to form a continuing caretaker government in the lead-up to fresh elections due in July.

Reactions to Yingluck's dismissal have been predictable. Leader of the anti-Yingluck protest moevement Suthep Thaugsuban claims the court's decision represents the final blow against her Pheu Thai party, but then he has been making similar claims for some months. Whether he can translate his claims into actions beyond yet another protest march remains uncertain and there seemed to be little activity among his supporters in the camp they have established in Lumpini Park when I visited yesterday afternoon.

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Pheu Thai representatives have, of course, condemned the decision and called for a Red Shirt demonstration tomorrow. Large numbers of Red Shirt suppporters are assembled on the edges of Bangkok.

Former Democrat Party prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has over the last week offered suggestions for some form of compromise, but these have effectively called for a solution that would ignore the reality of Pheu Thai's continuing record of winning elections decisively.

The limited number of Thai observers I have been able to speak to during my short visit to Bangkok have been cautiously optimisitic that violence can be avoided, given the unhappy memories of the more than ninety deaths that occurred in 2010. Views from legal academics seem divided, with some condemning the court's decision as a judicial coup while others hail it as a wise decision, since it leaves a rump caretaker government in place.

Unsurprisingly, there has been speculation about possible action by the army, which so far has kept to the barracks despite some expectations that it would step in to resolve the stalemate. Every indication is that the army looks back on its coup in 2006 with some misgivings, as it found it could not control events after it had stepped into the political arena. Above all, there is no indication that long-retired general and privy counsellor Prem Tinsulanonda is ready to play the puppet-master role that he did on that occasion. If there was a descent into widespread violence this would without question change the equation for the army, but that point has not yet been reached.

To date, with only limited violence having occurred in the course of the stalemate, the economy has not suffered greatly, though tourist numbers are down and there are increasing calls from the private sector for an end to the political standoff.

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