Lowy Institute

As previewed last Friday, the Second Mekong Summit, held in Ho Chi Minh City on 5 April, concluded with a Declaration that did not directly address the contentious issue of the two dams Laos is constructing on the Mekong River at Xayaburi and Don Sahong (Xayaburi has been reported by the Lao Government to be 30% completed, while Don Sahong is set to go into full construction at the end of this year).

It's true that the Declaration refers to the need for 'strengthened cooperation for the sustainable development of the Mekong Basin', while claiming there has been 'expanded implementation of the Procedures for Notification, Prior Consultation and Agreement...to support sound decision-making on proposed water resources development projects in the Mekong River Basin'. But these motherhood statements fly in the face of the manner in which the Lao Government has been pursuing its dam strategies.

Before the summit took place, the Cambodian Water Resources Minister, Lim Keanhor said 'that Cambodia would raise the construction of the Lao Don Sahong dam during the summit'. And at a press conference after the summit the Vietnamese Minister of Natural Resources and Environment, Nguyen Minh Quang, said Laos should consult with other MRC members before taking further action at Don Sahong.

But the most direct comments on the future of the Lao dams have come from prominent NGOs and not from governments, with International Rivers calling for the immediate cessation to work on Don Sahong and Xayaburi, and WWF claiming that 'development partners' at the meetings in Ho Chi Minh City had called for re-evalutation not just of the Lao dams but also of Cambodian plans to build the Se San 2 dam.

So the question is now quite straightforward: will Laos continue to simply ignore the calls for it to abandon Xayaburi and Don Sahong? All evidence suggests it will, particularly in the case of Xayaburi, where construction is already so far advanced. Halting work at Don Sahong would be less of a back-down, but the Lao Government has been adamant in stating its intentions to proceed.

If, in the face of criticism from its MRC partners, Laos simply disregards the calls for it to stop construction of the dams, the worth of the 1995 Mekong Agreement will be dealt a major, even fatal blow, at least so far as its having any role to play in relation to the control of dam-building on the Mekong. Indeed, this point may have already been reached.


As the National Assembly resumed sittings in Phnom Penh this week, with only members of the CPP government in attendance because of the continuing boycott by elected members of Sam Rainsy's CNRP, there have been suggestions that a compromise may finally be in sight that would end the CNRP boycott of the parliament.

At various times since the elections in July of last year there has been talk that compromise is in sight, but on each occasion the prospect of an end to the CNRP boycott has foundered on the CPP's refusal to entertain a review of the 2013 election results. There have been hints that the CPP government might be prepared to review the manner in which the National Election Committee functions in the future, but no signs of its readiness to review its past actions, which included validating last year's poll.

Without being present on the ground, it is difficult to evaluate the state of public opinion in Cambodia, but there are grounds for accepting the judgments made by President of the Cambodia Center for Human Rights Ou Virak that the CPP has not grasped the need to bring public opinion with it in the changed circumstances following last year's surprise showing by the CNRP.

But if we are to accept this judgment, it is also worth taking note of Ou Virak's other judgment, that 'the challenge for the CNRP will be to prove to the Cambodian people that it constitutes a credible alternative'.

Mobilising protest marches is one thing. Showing that it has policies that can be realistically implemented, particularly in economic areas, is another. And no matter how much Sam Rainsy denies that his denunciations of supposed Vietnamese perfidy are not racist in character, this aspect of his rhetoric is a continuing cause for concern about the sort of leader he would be if he ever comes to power.


The second Mekong River Commission Summit will take place in Ho Chi Minh City on 5 April, with the participation of the prime ministers of the four member states (Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam) and representatives from China and Myanmar. The summit will be preceded by an international conference, beginning tomorrow, which will take as its subject 'Cooperation for water, energy and food security in trans-boundary basins under changing climate'.

In advance of the summit there have been a range of protests from NGOs and organisations concerned with environmental issues and focusing particularly on the construction of the Xayaburi and Don Sahong dams in Laos.

While these protests have called for a halt to the dams' construction (a most unlikely development as Laos presses ahead), it is far from clear that this issue will be discussed in either the summit or the preceding conference, where at least in terms of the program circulated, the issues under consideration will be of a much more general nature. And even if discussed, it is doubtful the summit will be in a position to do more than record concerns. As always needs to be emphasised, the Mekong River Commission is not a body that has the power to direct or prevent the actions of its members.

Indeed, the experience of the previous Mekong summit, held in Hua Hin, Thailand, in 2010, is a further reason to judge that this event is unlikely to have an effect on the vexed question of dam-building on the Mekong. When the first summit took place there was much concern expressed that the Xiaowan dam being constructed in China was causing depleted water flows down the Mekong. At that time neither Xayaburi nor Don Sahong were under construction. Yet when the final communique was issued, China's actions were not mentioned and the summit, as I noted at the time, ended with a whimper rather than with a bang.

No matter how persuasive the arguments levelled against the dams at Xayaburi and Don Sahong, Laos has shown that it is ready to ignore protests with impunity. There is little reason to think this will change no matter what views are expressed in Ho Chi Minh City.

Photo by Flickr user Indy Kethdy.


The Lao Government confirmed on Wednesday its intention to go ahead with construction of the controversial Don Sahong dam, commencing in December. Lao government ministers said that all of their actions in doing so would be presented in a transparent fashion.

As I reported in The Interpreter on 22 January (Mekong states speak out on the Don Sahong dam), Cambodia and Vietnam had made clear their opposition to the dam and asked that the Lao decision be referred to the Mekong River Commission's (MRC) ministerial council. It does not appear that this has been done. If it has, there is no indication that the council has issued a statement of its views in relation to Don Sahong. And in any event, Laos is clearly going to proceed with the dam no matter what the council says.

This latest announcement suggests a pattern of behaviour by Lao authorities. Just as was the case with the Xayaburi dam (pictured), the Lao Government is prepared to go ahead with its plans for dam construction regardless of criticism from other MRC members. In doing so they not only show disregard for the interests of other members and the likely effects of dams on fish stocks and the flow of sediment, they also further diminish whatever remaining authority the MRC has as a body regulating dams on the Mekong.

For so long as the only country building dams on the Mekong was China (not an MRC member), it was possible to hold the view that the MRC had the potential, if not the actual black-letter-law authority, to act as an arbiter in relation to the dam-building ambitions of its members. This has now been shown to be nothing more than wishful thinking.

Photo by Flickr user International Rivers.


Throughout the post-election stand-off that has seen Sam Rainsy's CNRP party members refusing to take their seats, there have been several occasions when it looked as though talks between the ruling CPP and the CNRP might take place, but to date nothing has come of these apparently promising but ultimately unsuccessful efforts. This is despite the unusual intervention of the king, Norodom Sihanomi, who called on opposition members to take their seats in the parliament as long ago as September last year.

The most recent developments involving an agreement between the two opposing parties to hold talks next week do not address the central demands of the CNRP and won't 'break the deadlock', as Elliot Brennan suggested yesterday. Rather, as is clear from a report in the Cambodia Daily on 26 February, what will be discussed next week is future electoral reform.

The meeting will not discuss the key issue dividing the two parties, which is the CNRP claim of irregularities in last year's elections. So far as the CPP is concerned, that issue is not debatable. Nor is there evidence of the CPP's readiness to accede to other CNRP demands, not least the right to assume the presidency of the national assembly.

Photo by Flickr user Luc Forsyth.


There is no doubt that Singapore's very particular 'Peranakan Culture', as presented in Yana's observations on Marginal Revolution and highlighted on The Interpreter yesterday, has played a part in the island republic's remarkable success.

But as someone who first visited the city in 1959, has been a regular visitor ever since, and was a resident for three and half years in the late seventies, I think the explanation is both more complex and less easy to pin down to a single key factor we might summarise as 'Adam Smith in overseas Chinese guise'.

Remarkable leadership is certainly part of the answer, but that leadership has involved more than Lee Kuan Yew, vitally important as his contribution was. Far too little attention is given by outside observers to others in the PAP leadership team in the early years of Singapore's independence, a team that included Goh Keng Swee and many others whose names are now forgotten outside Singapore. And at the very least, the younger generation of politicians who followed have been dedicated and capable, even if the challenges they have faced have not, perhaps, been so great.

Commentary on Singapore often fails to recognise the extent to  which it has re-invented itself over the years.

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Inheriting a city which could accurately be called a tropical slum (Barrington Kaye's Upper Nankin Street tells the story), independent Singapore has steadily moved up the production value chain. I well remember when German camera maker Rollei opened in Singapore to great fanfare in the seventies, but of course such forms of manufacturing have long since gone. As early as the eighties Goh Keng Swee was talking about the opportunities to develop genetic engineering.

Once it was unwise for the young to arrive in Singapore with over-long hair. If one wants to look at social change then it's worth noting that gay bars are now a feature of the city (though it says something about local mores that Bugis Street [pictured] today is a recreation of the original).

Having lived elsewhere in Southeast Asia for long periods I would note one, to my mind, fundamentally important point contributing to Singapore's success that is not given sufficient weight by casual observers: the lack of corruption. This is a vital and remarkable fact of commercial and financial life that surely warrants the correct use of the term 'unique'.

Singapore may not be perfect — is not perfect — and I find its attachment to capital punishment distasteful. But it has been a  remarkable success story, if perhaps, as Yana quotes one youth as saying, 'too boring'. Yet even if this is so (and I'm not sure all my Singaporean friends would agree) its very existence, given the obstacles its leadership has had to overcome since 1965, has to be judged a notable achievement.

Photo by Flickr user YL Tan.


The final sentence in last weekend's Financial Times report on developments in Thailand caught my eye when it referred to a Red Shirt supporter in Chiang Rai who is 'an accountant'. It was not a surprise to me that a 'professional' should be noted as a pro-government Red Shirt. After all, I drew attention to the mistaken tendency to label all Red Shirts as being drawn from the ranks of the 'poor' in a 2011 Interpreter post.

Rather, the FT report emphasised that there has been too little attention given in recent reporting about Thailand to the social diversity of the Red Shirts' support beyond their undoubted strongholds in the north and northeast of the country.

A 2007 electoral results map prepared by the highly respected historian and political commentator on Thai issues, Chris Baker, and republished recently in New Mandala, makes this point. While the map shows solid support for the Democrats (the political party linked to the Suthep Thaugsuban-led Yellow Shirt protest activities on Bangkok's streets) in the south, it is clear that Red Shirt supporters, then grouped as the People Power party, registered strong support in areas on the periphery of the capital and in provinces close to it.

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There is little reason to think that this support has changed since 2007, as a recent article in New Sentinel makes clear. In the judgment of the anonymous author, one-third of Bangkok's electoral seats were held by Red Shirt supporters while the ruling Pheu Thai party was also supported in the newly industrialised regions east of the capital on the Gulf of Thailand.

The same article draws attention to the strength of feeling in the north and northeast associated with the previous Lanna kingdom, which was only fully integrated into Bangkok-ruled Thailand in the nineteenth century, suggesting this plays a part in contemporary politics.

As an interested observer rather than a specialist on Thai politics, I am hesitant to make too much of this point. But as a regular visitor to northern Thailand I have been struck by what might be called 'local nationalism' in cities such as Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, with much emphasis placed on the glories of the period before Lanna fell under the control of Bangkok.

Photo by Flickr user Ratchaprasong.


Although widely condemned by academic specialists, environmentalists and civil society groups, the Lao Government plans to proceed with construction of the Don Sahong dam. The proposed dam, discussed in an Interpreter post in November, appeared to be largely escaping official criticism from the other members of the Mekong River Commission (MRC): Cambodia, Thailand and Laos.

It was notable that representatives of the Cambodian National Mekong Committee were not repeating their earlier (2009) criticisms of this dam which, if constructed, would have a major impact on the fish stocks that are so important for the Cambodian population's diet. It is estimated that fish from the Mekong and its tributaries account for 80% of the Cambodian population's annual animal protein intake.

However, at a meeting of the MRC held in Vientiane on 16 January, the representatives of Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam made clear their concerns about Don Sahong and their wish to see the proposal to construct the dam referred the the MRC Council for ministerial consideration. 

Multiple issues are involved in this development. Of first importance is the likely environmental impact of the proposed dam, since it will be located on the one channel through which migratory fish can pass through the Khone Falls region throughout the year. This is an issue that has been widely discussed and on which there is substantial agreement on the basis that there is no way to mitigate the barrier to fish migration that constructing the dam would involve. This has importance for fish catches both above and below the Khone Falls.

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Linked to this is the debate as to whether or not the Don Sahong is being built on the mainstream of the Mekong. The Lao government and representatives speaking for the Malaysian firm contracted to build the dam argue that the dam's site is not on the river's mainstream and that alternative channels can be found for fish migration. This may appear to be an 'angels on the head of a pin' issue, but it does have relevance under the terms of the 1995 Mekong Agreement. Under that agreement member states are required to submit dam proposals to the Ministerial Council if the intention is to build on the mainstream of the river. Dams on tributaries are only subject to the requirement that notification should be given of their construction. Don Sahong has always been assumed to be a mainstream dam and the fact that Laos is now arguing the alternative case seems to have little validity. To state, as the Lao representatives now do, that because the amount of water that flows past the Don Sahong site is only 15% of the total flow over the Khone Falls smacks of casuistry. In any case, the Lao government is holding firm to its view

Depressingly for those, including the present writer, who hold concerns about developments that will seriously diminish fish stocks in the river, it seems all too likely that referral of the Don Sahong dam to the MRC Ministerial Council will not, in the long run, prevent the dam being built.

Under the terms of the 1995 Mekong Agreement,  the MRC cannot prevent member parties from buildings dams on the mainstream of the river if they are really determined to do so. Laos has already made this fact clear with its decision taken in 2012 to proceed with the construction of a dam at Xayaburi against the wishes of Cambodia and Vietnam. Placed against the relatively small hydroelectric generating capacity of the proposed dam (240 MW), the ultimate costs in the Lower Mekong Basin of finding alternatives to wild fish are substantial, as this recent academic survey has shown

Just as was the case with the Xayaburi dam, the prospect that Don Sahong will indeed be built raises concerns that a domino effect will take place and lead to other dams being built on the mainstream of the Mekong, most probably in Laos. Should this 'race to the bottom' take place the ultimate costs to food security would be serious indeed. 

 Photo by Flickr user International Rivers.


While the continuing political stand-off continues in Phnom Penh and Hun Sen's government is showing itself increasingly ready to react harshly against protest groups,  there is actually some good news from Cambodia. Reviewing developments in 2013, the country’s National Centre for Malaria has just released encouraging figures in the continuing fight against the high human costs of the disease. Over the past year the number of deaths from malaria dropped from 46 to 12, while the number of recorded cases fell from 65,550 to 41, 850. 

As the still large number of cases indicates, there is much to be done if the aim of eliminating malaria by 2025 is to be achieved.

Not least of the many Cambodia tragedies of the past fifty years is the fact that major steps towards eliminating malaria had been achieved in the 1960s, despite some significant cultural opposition that had to be overcome on the part of the Buddhist hierarchy. The efforts ground to an almost complete halt in the last years of the 1960s as rebellion broke out, first in the northwest of the country and then nation-wide after Sihanouk's overthrow in 1970. And then, during the Khmer Rouge period between 1975 and 1979, no effort was made to combat the widespread resurgence of malaria in circumstances of an almost complete lack of decent medical services.

Malaria remains prevalent in western regions of Cambodia, not least in the region around the former Khmer Rouge stronghold of Pailin. And a continuing challenge is the emergence new and virulent forms of the disease and the problem of resistance to widely used treatments.

 Photo by Flickr user calafellvalo.


It's too early to say whether the violence resulting in at least four deaths that occurred in Phnom Penh on 3 January, as police and military dispersed protesters in the city's 'Freedom Park', represents a turning point in the long stand-off that has followed last July's disputed national elections.

But there is little doubt that these events, involving not just supporters of Sam Rainsy’s Cambodian National Rescue Party but also striking garment workers, have moved the issues involved (both the CNRP’s claim that the elections results were rigged and the garment worker’s demand for greatly increased wages) to a new level of intensity.

In retrospect, and given all that is known about Hun Sen’s determination to hold on to power, it was only a matter of time before his government reacted with force to the long-running series of protest rallies sponsored by the CNRP’s leaders.

For the past several months the government has proceeded to act as if it had no need to take account of the regular protests, receiving foreign delegations and holding talks with both state and party representatives from its closest ally, China. Indeed, as the crackdown took place in Phnom Penh a Cambodian delegation was in Beijing for the first meeting of the Cambodia-China Intergovernmental Coordination Committee, led by Foreign Minister Hor Namhong.

What probably shifted the government’s position from a grudging measure of tolerance of the protests to this new, forceful response is the role of the striking garment workers.

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Cambodia is heavily dependent on the export earnings of its factories producing low-cost clothes and shoes for major European and American companies, representing 80% of all exports and valued in the order of US$5 billion annually. While strikes have been common in recent years, the combination of the CNRP campaign against the election result, Sam Rainsy’s readiness to promise greatly increased minimum wages for factory workers, and a shutdown of Cambodia’s major export earners posed a challenge to the government that it was not ready to accept.

It would be unwise to predict what will happen next, except to suggest that pressure for some form of resolution to the crisis is now much greater than before.

One interesting straw in the wind is an analysis that has just appeared in Xinhua in which various Cambodia commentators suggest that a referendum on the  question of whether fresh election should be held to end the crisis. That such an article should appear in Xinhua is striking, given China’s hitherto unwavering support for Hun Sen. While it is possible to think of Sam Rainsy and his supporters accepting the suggestion of a referendum, it seems unlikely to appeal to Hun Sen. Yet the fact that such an analysis should appear in an official Chinese publication must surely give him pause.

Photo by REUTERS/Samrang Pring.


The current street demonstrations in Bangkok are best understood as a continuation of a political upheaval dating back to 2006 and the ousting of the elected caretaker government of Thaksin Shinawatra by an army coup. Subsequent events, most notably the Yellow Shirt occupation of Bangkok's airports in 2008 and the bloody suppression of the Red Shirt protests in Bangkok in 2010 have not resolved the fundamental split in Thai politics: that is, the refusal of many of those associated with the Democrat Party to accept that Thailand's government should be formed by the party that wins the majority of votes in an election.

As the ANU's Andrew Walker has pointed out recently, the Democrats have not won an election since 1992.

It is against this background that opponents of the current government of Thaksin's sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, most notably Suthep Thaugsuban, are repeating variants of previous calls for the country to be run by some form of unelected council or assembly. The flip side of this proposal is the unabashed claim that the sort of people who voted for Thaksin were not sufficiently educated to understand the intricacies of national politics.

Suthep, who was deputy prime minister in the unelected government installed after the 2006 army coup, is a man with a colourful past. During the 2010 crisis he was a consistent advocate of a hardline approach to the Red Shirt protest occupation in Bangkok. His current role in leading the anti-Yingluck protests disguises the fact that those taking to the streets are far from united in their aims, beyond bringing the government down.

As has been repeatedly noted by close observers of Thailand’s politics, the country has changed dramatically over the past two or three decades, with the population living outside Bangkok demanding a voice. The spread of education and the improvement in living standards beyond the capital means rural voters have become a powerful force.

People such as Suthep want to turn back the clock to a time when the Bangkok elite quarelled among themselves as to who should run the country. But that period is over. The concern now must be that in this striving to return to the past, there are risks of a repeat of the sort of events that took place in 2010 when some 90 people died as the Red Shirt protests were routed.

Photo by REUTERS/Dylan Martinez.


Perhaps it has become routine, almost hackneyed, to remember where one was on 22 November 1963.

Yet memory of that event can still say something about its impact. For if the Kennedy Administration's 'Camelot' has undergone reassessment and has lost some of its lustre, it's important to recognise how strong was the feeling in America at the time that JFK's assassination ended a life of promise and called into question a future which, while he was alive, seemed to offer hope rather than despair.

My memory comes from the early months of graduate study at Cornell. On the afternoon of 22 November I had just finished working in the stacks of the Olin Library and was about to go outside when Mario Einaudi, the distinguished teacher and writer on European politics, came towards me weeping and said, 'They have killed my president.' Even then, and as I tried to comfort him, I was struck by his usage; not 'the president' but 'my president'.

When we emerged into the open air a crowd of staff and students had already gathered in the space between the Olin and Uris Libraries, standing quietly and talking in hushed tones. And then, silencing all who stood there, the chimes in McGraw Tower started playing 'America the Beautiful'. Many wept and I certainly felt deeply moved.

Now, it should be said that Cornell's is a strongly Democrat campus, then and now, with its links to New York City. So if there had not been grief and emotion, it would have been surprising. But what I saw and felt at that time had echoes all over America.

That evening, in a truly symbolic fashion, the first snowfall of the winter blanketed Ithaca.

Image from Wikipedia.


As previewed in my post of 29 October, the International Court of Justice yesterday handed down a unanimous decision in relation to the Preah Vihear dispute that affirmed the court's 1962 decision awarding sovereignty over the temple to Cambodia and clarified the extent to which this sovereignty extended over land surrounding the temple. The key points of the judgment is contained in paragraph 98 of the decision.

The court effectively ruled that the topographic 'peninsula' on which the Preah Vihear temple is built is Cambodian territory while land beyond the peninsula is Thai. Some sense of this geographic situation is revealed in the aerial photo/map accompanying the BBC's report on the court's decision.

The practical result is that the Thai Government is now obligated to remove its troops and other government representatives from areas close to the temple.

Politically, the ICJ decision comes close to being a 'win-win' result for the two governments, and it has been welcomed as such by Thai and Cambodian ministers, with both sides suggesting future talks to resolve outstanding issues.

There is little appetite in Cambodia for further confrontation on this issue. But the political atmosphere in Thailand (and especially Bangkok) is febrile, as debate over the issue of amnesties for those involved in the 2010 Yellow Shirt-Red Shirt protests continues to generate strong feelings. Ultra-patriotic groups may try to gain political advantage from the ICJ's decision by attacking the Thai Government as being weak in protecting national interests.

Photo by Flickr user spiderman (Frank).


Visiting Cambodia, Laos and Thailand over the past three weeks leaves me in no doubt that issues associated with the Mekong continue to be a subject of sharp controversy, both as a result of the Lao Government’s decision to build a dam at Don Sahong and the Cambodian Government’s decision to go ahead with the Lower Se San 2 dam on the biggest tributary flowing into the Mekong in that country.

As Laos appears set to proceed with its dam at Don Sahong, it has come under criticism from both Cambodia and Vietnam for its failure to follow proper processes through the Mekong River Commission, a replay of how it behaved in relation to the dam at Xayaburi, now under construction. The former environment minister in the Cambodian Government, Mak Moreth, has been sharply critical of Lao behaviour and this criticism has been echoed from Vietnam.

But so far I have not seen or heard recent public criticism of Laos’ plans in relation to Don Sahong from the Cambodian National Mekong Committee to match remarks about this project made in 2009 by the Committee’s Permanent Vice President, Sin Niny, when he drew attention to the damage a dam at Don Sahong could cause to fish stocks in the Mekong River.

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It is difficult to know the extent to which muted Cambodian criticism from serving officials reflects a decision by Hun Sen to prevent them engaging in attacks on Lao policy, as happened when it became clear that the Lao Government was set on going ahead with its dam at Xayaburi. What is clear is the fact that Cambodian ministers are for the most part not particularly interested in issues associated with the Mekong, being either unaware of the science involved in warnings against depletion of fish stocks or discounting its validity.

This tendency to reject scientific findings that overwhelmingly warn against the dangers of dams on the Mekong and its tributaries is also reflected in the attitudes adopted by the Cambodian Government and its officials to the planned Lower Se San 2 dam.

Officials I talked to in Phnom Penh, some of whom have previously criticised the intentions of the Lao Government, were adamant in their rejection of suggestions that the Se San 2 dam posed a danger to fisheries or that it was opposed by local populations. These interlocutors both questioned the science relating to fish losses and argued that local discontent was the result of ‘outside agitators’ stirring up trouble.

In any event, as one of my Cambodian informants* put it to me, Vietnam has already built dams on the upper reaches of the river so why should we not build our dam and benefit from the electricity it will provide? That this attitude does not sit well with either those who will be directly affected by the dam or by scientific experts is revealed in this recent Al Jazeera report, which also picks up on the major study published earlier this year warning about the dangers of the dam to fish stocks.

The lack of strong civil society groups in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam leaves almost no possibility for government decisions, once made, to be revoked. Indeed, in Cambodia it has been made clear that protests against the Se San 2 dam could lead to imprisonment.

And while there are active civil society groups in Thailand which frequently campaign against dams on the Mekong, there is little evidence that their concerns have much influence on government thinking in Bangkok, as evidenced by the fact that Thailand is set to purchase electricity from the dams the Lao Government is or will be building.

Photo by Flickr user International Rivers.

* This previously read 'Lao informants'. The error occurred in the editing process.


The International Court of Justice (ICJ) is due hand down a decision on 11 November in the latest case involving Preah Vihear, the 11th century Hindu temple that has been at the heart of disputes, on occasion spilling over into armed conflict, between Thailand and Cambodia for over fifty years.

In 1962 the ICJ awarded Cambodia sovereignty over the temple but did not rule on the question of the territory immediately surrounding it. The practical importance of this omission lies in the fact that the temple is readily accessible from Thailand but only reached with some difficulty from Cambodia, since Preah Vihear is located on the top of an escarpment overlooking the northern Cambodian plain.

The Preah Vihear issue is one I have previously discussed in The Interpreter and in more detail in an article for Open Democracy. Simplified greatly, the Cambodian Government claims that the 1962 ICJ ruling means it has sovereignty over the temple and 4.6 sq km of territory surrounding it. Thailand, in contrast, argues that the ruling should be interpreted to mean that Cambodian sovereignty only applies to 0.35 sq km.

According to the Thai ambassador to The Hague, there are four possible rulings the ICJ could hand down: it could decide not to interpret the 1962 judgment; it could rule in favour of Cambodia; it could say that Thailand’s territorial claim is correct; or it could hand down a ruling clarifying aspects of the 1962 judgment.

The Cambodian and Thai governments have reached a modus vivendi for the present, agreeing to cooperate to prevent the ruling causing difficulties between them, and there are signs that the issue no longer stirs the same kind of ultra-nationalist feeling that has occurred in the past.

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One such sign is the fact that the temple is now, at least in the Thai English-language press, routinely referred to by its Cambodian name, Preah Vihear, rather than the Thai usage of Phra Khao Viharn. Two prominent Thai scholars, Charnvit Kasetsiri and Pavin Chachavalpongpun, have joined with a Cambodian author, Pou Sothirak, in a recently published book calling for a peaceful settlement of disputes over territory (Preah Vihear: A Guide to the Thai-Cambodian Conflict and Its Solutions; I should note that both Charnvit and Pou are long-standing acquaintances of mine). It is probably fair to say that this moderate tone is shared  by a large number of Thais and Cambodians of all political persuasions.

Yet despite this change in tone, it is clear that the Thai Government is concerned that the ICJ ruling could lead to serious anti-Cambodian protests that would feed into more general unrest at a time when domestic political divisions have clearly not moderated. One Thai friend suggested to me, in all seriousness, that the division between the government Pheu Thai party and the opposition Democrats was as sharp as that between the Democrats and the Republicans in the US House of Representatives.

The Thai Government has instituted a range of measures to prevent any ICJ decision becoming the basis for renewed difficulties with Cambodia. These measures include protection of Thai embassies abroad, including in Phnom Penh, the dissemination of calming information in provinces bordering Cambodia, and even plans to broadcast loud-speaker calls for calm along the border. Talks have been held with Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong, and the Cambodian Government is reported to be taking similar measures, though the issue has received much less media attention in that country, where the post-election stand-off still dominates the media.

All of these measures are being taken with sharp memories of past violent protests in both Cambodia and Thailand over issues of sovereignty. In 2003 violent riots in Phnom Penh followed the alleged claim by a popular Thai singer that the temple of Angkor Wat really belonged to Thailand. Thai commercial interests in Phnom Penh were attacked and torched and the Thai ambassador narrowly escaped being assaulted by a mob. In Thailand, reaction by ultra nationalists to the awarding of heritage status to Preah Vihear was joined to other protests by conservative forces. Then in 2011 there were sharp military exchanges between the two countries in the region of Preah Vihear.

If the ICJ judgment is received without sharp reactions in either Thailand or Cambodia, it will be a measure of a maturity in relations between the two countries that has so often been lacking in the past.

Photo by Flickr user TrojanTraveler.