Lowy Institute

The Stimson Center in Washington DC has maintained a long and important interest in the future of the Mekong River and, in particular, on hydropower developments associated with the river. Its publications on this topic have always been worth reading. The latest, Letters from the Mekong: Time for New Narrative on Mekong Hydropower, is particularly worthy of attention as it offers a more optimistic view of the future than has been reflected in my own, and indeed others', assessments of the likely future of the river.

An attempt to summarise a 37-page paper in a single post risks being both unfair to its authors and providing insufficient space to some highly contestable conclusions. So the following focuses on, in my judgment, the key issues over which there is ground for debate and disagreement:

  1. That the planned and already undertaken alterations to the design of the Xayaburi dam in Laos, now under construction, will substantially mitigate the barriers to fish migration through the dam.
  2. That in the case of the planned Don Sahong dam in southern Laos, where preliminary work has already begun on the work site but not on the dam itself,  there is reason to believe that there are an additional two channels through which fish can migrate over the Khone Falls rather than the one channel that has been identified previously and on which the dam is projected to be built.
  3. That increased civil society action and an awareness on the part of Mekong countries, particularly Laos, is likely to lead to greater oversight of future hydropower developments on the river, including at Pak Beng (the subject of my post of 2 October) but perhaps not the Lower Se San 2 dam in Cambodia, where construction is continuing. The argument of the Stimson paper here is that future dam projects may not proceed because of civil society opposition. But the dangers of the Lower Se San 2 dam are very considerable indeed. So, even if there is a restriction on the construction of future dams the most concerning horse has already bolted.

These are important judgments and to question them in detail would require considerable space.

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In relation to the first point concerning Xayaburi, it will not be until the dam is completed, probably in 2019, that the validity of Stimson's optimism will be tested. Meanwhile, the available research published in Catch and Culture by the Fisheries Division of the Mekong River Commission in 2008 and later in Fish Migration, Dams, and Loss of Ecosystem Services in the Mekong Basin is highly sceptical of the possibility of mitigation along the lines described by the Stimson Paper.

On the second point, even more than is the case in relation to Xayaburi, the proof of the fish pie will be in its eating. We simply will not know whether the assessment the Stimson paper records will be sustained until the dam is built. All that can be said for the moment is that the overwhelming majority of scientific analysis (beginning with this and this) offers a contrary view.

As for the possibility that the Lao and Cambodian governments will change their attitudes, we shall have to wait to see, but it is worth noting that highly regarded research in relation to the Lower Se San 2 dam paints a disturbing picture: a dam on this tributary could alone lead to a diminution of fish stocks in the Mekong River of more than 9% of current catches.

In fairness to Stimson, I must record the paper's own observation that 'The changes to Xayaburi and research results from Don Sahong are a positive step forward--but they do not mask the fact that major obstacles and concerns remain around both projects.' And more generally, picking up on the 'domino effect' to which I have referred on various occasions (that is, the concern that once one or more dams are built this will encourage the building of additional dams): 'The "domino narrative" , may still occur even in the face of rising political, financial , and diplomatic risks'.

I should also acknowledge the authors' kindness in referring to my own work in relation to the Mekong's future.

Photo by Flickr user Timothy Neesam.


Mekong news comes in fits and starts, and the Lao Government is adept at not revealing its intentions until its plans are well advanced. The Xayaburi dam, now under construction, is a notable case in point, with the Government suddenly announcing the official opening of the dam in a manner that blindsided critics.

Now, with attention focused on whether or not the Lao Government is indeed going ahead with the controversial dam planned for southern Laos at Don Sahong (an issue canvassed in many of my Interpreter posts), I have learned courtesy of a short CSIS report that matters are moving forward in relation to a planned dam at Pak Beng, a site approximately 100km upstream from Luang Prabang as the crow flies, or a day's journey in a slow river boat. The topography of the area around Pak Beng makes it ideal for a dam (as my photo attests).

According to the CSIS report, Lao officials met with a Chinese developer, China Datang Overseas Investment Company, on 21 September  to discuss the project, which would generate 4700 gigawatt hours of electricity a year. In entering discussions, the Lao representatives have spoken of their concern to ensure the proposed dam is 'sustainable and economically friendly'.

This development underlines the repeated concern of those who fear for the Mekong's future as a vital provider of protein from its stock of fish and as a source of nutrients in the sediment flowing down its long course. The long-standing concern has been that once one dam is built on the river outside China, as has now happened with Xayaburi, other dams would follow, despite the clear risks such a development involve.

So as matters now stand, Xayaburi is being built, construction of the Don Sahong dam seems likely to go ahead, and Pak Beng has now been brought into the mix. With continuing uncertainty about the possibility of a Cambodian dam at Sambor and that government's construction of the Lower Se San 2 dam on a major tributary to add to the picture, the Mekong's future is not looking bright. The feared 'domino effect' poses the real possibility that the Mekong River in the Lower Mekong Basin is set to be altered in an irretrievable and negative fashion.


The staggering dimensions of the migrant flow into Europe prompts me to offer a note on the Cambodian refugee crisis of the late 1970s and early 1980s, in which I played a small part. I am not suggesting that what happened 35 years ago offers any answer to current challenges.

Rather, the Cambodian crisis, which was ultimately resolved, emphasises how very different and difficult the present events are from almost every angle.

In the final months of 1979 tens of thousands of Cambodians began pouring across the Thai-Cambodian border in search of food and shelter, as near famine conditions took hold in their country in the chaotic wake of the Vietnamese invasion that had ousted the Pol Pot regime. Many of those who crossed into Thailand were literally dying on their feet.

The reaction to this crisis, which involved perhaps 250,000 seeking food and safety in Thailand, was remarkable. After hard bargaining with the Thai Government, the international community, led by UNHCR, set up a series of camps to accommodate the illegal immigrants, as the Thai Government regarded them, inside Thai territory. The largest of these was Khao-I-Dang, with a population of some 90,000.

Faced with this situation, UNHCR sought answers to two broad sets of questions. First, who were the refugees, where had they come from and what was their personal experience both during and after the period of Khmer Rouge rule? Secondly, what were the refugees' hopes for the future, either to be settled overseas or to return to Cambodia?

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My task, consulting for three months in the first half of 1980, was to find answers to these questions in the UNHCR-administered camps and, to a limited extent, in the unofficial border agglomerations just over the border in Cambodian territory where there were upwards of another 60,000 displaced persons.

The suffering the refugees had experienced under the Khmer Rouge was staggering. In a carefully constructed sample that tried to give due accord to the least advantaged of Cambodian society, I found that more than 40% of refugees had lost nuclear family members through execution.

Extrapolating, this suggested that the total loss of life under Pol Pot through executions, overwork and illness that might otherwise have been treated, was 1.5 million – a figure remarkably close to the now agreed figure for that period of 1.75 million.

As to their future hopes, there was a sharp divide based on educational background. Refuges with education hoped to find resettlement places overseas, while farmers and low-level urban workers thought in terms of eventual return to their homeland, but not yet.

When I returned for a second stint of two months consulting in 1981, my brief was much simpler: given that most of the camp dwellers were unlikely to be accepted overseas, under what conditions would they return? The answer was simple even if matching circumstances to their wish was not. They would return if they believed it was safe to do so.

With a relatively limited number of refugees finding resettlement overseas, it took ten long years for the bulk of the refugees remaining in the camps to return to Cambodia. It was not until the conclusion of the Paris Peace Accords in 1991 that a program of repatriation was finally drawn up and implemented, and even then the operation was protracted and lasted several months.

The Cambodian refugee crisis had a solution, but one that reflected a very different set of circumstances from what is occurring in Europe now. Most importantly, the majority of refugees hoped to return to their own country. What seems to mark out the current crisis is the hope of most of the migrants to move permanently to new homes.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user United Nations Photo.


In a month spent traveling through Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, I found a remarkable disconnect between the concerns of academic critics and NGOs about the Mekong River's future and the public attitude of governments already engaged in dam-building. I also found that awareness of what has happened and could happen to the river in the future is very much limited to those who live beside it.

The Mekong River flowing through Luang Prabang. (Photo by the author.)

I don't pretend that my soundings about the future of the river were scientific. I talked when the opportunity was available to 'the man or woman in the street', or the hotel, or in taxis of various kinds. And on this occasion, in contrast to other visits reported in The Interpreter, I did not seek commentary from officials. There appears to have been no change in their positions, particularly the Lao and Cambodia governments. What the Vietnamese government feels about the Mekong's future is something of a puzzle, while the Thai government is clearly not focused on the issue. 

There is, of course, one given in relation to the Mekong's future, and that is the fact that China has now built seven dams on the upper reaches of the river and there is a widespread conviction in the riverside communities of Chiang Saen and Chiang Khong in northern Thailand that uncertain and erratic water flows during the dry season, leading to diminished fish catches, are a direct result of China's dams.

At least as significant, though receiving less attention, is the fact that China's dams are restricting the amount of nutrient-rich sediment flowing down the Mekong. I am not aware of any recent study that has quantified the impact of this restriction, which will be of great importance both for riverside agriculture and, perhaps most importantly, for the agricultural production of Vietnam's Mekong delta in the future.

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More immediately important are the issues associated with one dam on a major Mekong tributary in Cambodia (the Lower Se San 2 dam, where construction has clearly begun)and the proposed Don Sahong dam in southern Laos, where all indications are that the Lao Government will not budge from its determination to build.

There are good reasons for concern that both these dams will substantially diminish fish stocks in the Mekong, though as Ian Baird, a long-time researcher on Mekong issues, points out in relation to the dam in Cambodia, NGOs have probably placed too much importance on the relocation of affected communities above the likely loss of fish stocks. At the same time, WWF has repeatedly drawn attention to the possibility that the Don Sahong dam could lead to the extinction of the critically endangered Mekong dolphins in the Mekong. While this is a legitimate concern, the much more extensive loss of fish stocks risks being undervalued by the stress on this one issue.

Why is it, then, that a future substantial diminution of fish stocks and the problems associated with limiting the flow of sediment down the river receives so little attention among the general public and on the part of governments?

The answer, so far as the governments of Cambodia and Laos are concerned, seems simply to be that they are convinced the more immediate value of hydropower trumps concerns about the reduction of fish stocks. Sales of electricity seem a tangible gain, with computer modelling indicating the loss of fish stocks can be dismissed, particularly when dam builders claim they have a way to minimise fish losses.

For the population living away from the rivers, other issues seem more important. I well remember a senior Thai official saying to me in 2008 that the average politician in his country had no real interest in Mekong matters unless his constituency bordered the river, and one supposes such a politician would have had more access to information about the river than a member of the general public. In Cambodia, where there now are quite active NGOs concerned about the river, there are few people ready to challenge Hun Sen's rejection of challenges to the Lower Se San 2 dam. In the much more tightly controlled Lao polity there are few who are even aware of what might happen to the Mekong.

What is most surprising is the restrained nature of public statements by Vietnam in relation to the Lao and Cambodian dams. At the Second Mekong River Commission Summit held in Ho Chi Minh City last year Vietnamese officials, including the prime minister, spoke critically of the actions of the Lao government. But there has been remarkably little by way of follow-up. Indeed, in recent talks between the Vietnamese and Lao governments, the issue of the Mekong was treated in a very restrained manner. On the one hand, the Vietnamese prime minister said his country 'supported Laos in developing hydropower on the Mekong River for socio-economic development', but he went on to qualify this by saying that 'if the construction of hydropower dams on the Mekong River's mainstream has great impact on the environment and people's live, then we should not do it.'

There once was a time when the 'lips and teeth' association between Vietnam and Laos might have been expected to lead to a more vigorous approach from Hanoi and a more compliant attitude in Vientiane. The fact that the Hanoi government has concerns about Chinese influence in Laos undoubtedly plays some part in the softly, softly approach being followed.

Well over 60 million people on the Lower Mekong Basin depend on the Mekong River, not least for its bounty of fish, which in Cambodia's case provides 80% of the population's annual protein intake. But this fact, and many others, seems not to be taken into account as dam building goes on in Laos and Cambodia. It is as if the countries of the Mekong are sleepwalking into a dangerously worrying future.


There has been little news of the much criticised proposed dam at Don Sahong in the far south of Laos since the beginning of the year, when the Mekong River Commission (MRC) arranged for a series of public meetings to be held in member countries to discuss the dam.

From the start, these meetings showed that opinion on the dam was polarised, with Laos determined to build the dam and the downstream countries, Cambodia and Vietnam, opposed to its construction. Meanwhile, in a little reported step forward, in February 2015 the Malaysian company constructing the dam, Mega First, signed a memorandum for the sale of electricity from the dam once it is completed with the state-owned Electricite de Laos.

It has now been reported that the MRC Council, the highest body within the Commission, has failed to reach any conclusion in relation to the proposed Don Sahong dam and has returned the issue to the interested governments – Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.

In reporting this development Radio Free Asia makes the claim that, as has long been suspected, Mega First is continuing to proceed with construction at the dam's site without any agreement from its fellow MRC members. Only last week a well-informed observer based in Laos made the same claim to me. Access to the dam site is limited for outside observers, making up-to-date information difficult to obtain.

Despite the previous lack of news in relation to the Don Sahong dam, nothing has changed in terms of the serious threat it poses to the fish stocks and the flow of nutrient rich-sediment for the downstream countries. Despite some past suggestions that there might be an 'ASEAN solution' to the problems arising from the dam's proposed construction, there is no evidence to support such a prospect.

Everything points to the likelihood that Laos will succeed in constructing two dams on the Mekong's mainstream, given that its construction of the dam at Xayaburi is also moving rapidly ahead.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user David.


The news of the death at 82 of Chea Sim, the president of the Cambodian Senate, has been greeted by Human Rights Watch with a sharp denunciation of his role as a Khmer Rouge official during the Pol Pot regime and as a reflection of the fact that officials from that period still benefit from impunity under Hun Sen's rule.

This familiar and justified account of Cambodian governance comes at a time when the Khmer Rouge Tribunal (Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia) is once again bogged down in disputes over whether additional defendants will be charged with crimes committed while Pol Pot was in power.

In more immediate domestic political terms, Chea Sim's death brings to an end the long-running tension between he and Hun Sen, who were frequently at odds within the Cambodian People's Party (CPP). As a well-sourced report in yesterday's Phnom Penh Post notes, probably the most interesting question that arises following Chea Sim's death is who will succeed him as leader of his CPP faction. The most likely figure is the ambitious Minister of the Interior, Sar Kheng, widely regarded as a hardliner on matters of government control.

Yet as Sebastian Strangio, author of the justly praised Hun Sen's Cambodia observes in the article, the internal processes of the CPP are 'opaque' and it may be some time before we are able to judge the extent to which Hun Sen's position is affected by the disappearance of his fractious colleague.

Photo by Flickr user Iwishmynamewasmarsha.


At a time when there is increasing interest in Australia's developing ties with Burma (Myanmar), the death on 31 March of Pamela Gutman brings to an end the life of the first Australian scholar to complete a doctorate in Asian art and to do so in relation to Burma.

The fruits of this research were eventually contained in her highly praised book, Burma's Lost Kingdoms: Splendours of Arakan, published in 2001. To record these blunt facts tells little of the effort involved in her carrying out research in Burma in the 1970s, when the government was resistant to foreign scholarship, and travel in Arakan could only take place with the assistance of a military escort.

Yet Pamela overcame the difficulties research in Burma posed, which involved translating Sanskrit inscriptions and becoming highly knowledgeable about obscure numismatics. She also played an early part in government-to-government relations.

She was invited to dine with the then Burmese president, Ne Win, to advance the cause of an Australia-Burma cultural agreement, an event, as she was able to recount, that involved being admitted to Ne Win's residence only after she had been examined through a periscope at the residence's guard post. 

At a time when opportunities for full-time employment in universities were limited, Pamela worked in the Department of Immigration and the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, which included working in association with Professor Ross Garnaut on 'Australia and the Northeast Asian Ascendancy'.

Her involvement in Australia's growing links with Asia ranged from being Deputy Director of the Research Institute for Asia and the Pacific at the University of Sydney, to being the founding Director (International) of Asialink. She also worked with the Commission for the Future in establishing cultural exchange programs. From 1997 to 2004* she was a member of the Refugee Review Tribunal, where she worked in relation to Asian issues.

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Throughout her life in public and university service she never neglected her passionate interest in Burma's history, and after leaving the Refugee Review Tribunal she became an Honorary Associate in the Department of Art History and Theory at the University of Sydney. The regard in which she was held as an authority on Burmese art and Southeast Asian art more generally led to her being consulted by major galleries in Australia and overseas, including recently by The Hermitage in St Petersburg and the Asia Society in New York.

Sadly, she had not completed her planned second edition of Burma's Lost Kingdoms, though there is hope that this may be completed by one of her PhD students, Martin Polkinghorne. She also left the incomplete text of a biography of the great English scholar of Burma, Gordon Luce. She had studied with Luce in Jersey and she was fascinated both by his renown as a scholar and by his membership of the Bloomsbury Group, which included his close association with Maynard Keynes.

Only a few months ago her major study of an inscription from Sriksetra in western Burma, written in conjunction with Dr Bob Hudson, was published in the Bulletin of the Ecole française d'Extrême-Orient. This article is set to revise judgments on just when Buddhist influences became important in early Burmese history.

Above all she was a warm and extraordinarily generous person, qualities that extended to her being instrumental in ensuring that cosmetics, particularly Red Earth lipstick, could be taken into Burma for Aung San Suu Kyi while she was under house arrest. Her door was always open to those who wanted to know more about Burma or who wanted to share their knowledge with her. So a visitor to her home might find that he or she was meeting an Arakanese Buddhist monk or an exiled princely Sawbwa from the Shan states. This generosity of spirit will be as much a memory of her as her admirable academic achievements.

She is survived by her daughter, three grandchildren, and her two sisters.

* Correction: the article originally stated that Pamela Gutman served on the Refugee Review Tribunal from 2001 to 2010.


Two events over the past week leave an observer to conclude that change will only come slowly in Cambodia so long as Hun Sen is prime minister. The first relates to the Khmer Rouge Tribunal (the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, ECCC), the second to Michelle Obama's visit.

On 5 March I recorded in The Interpreter that Judge Mark Harmon, one of the international judges at the ECCC, had charged two former Khmer Rouge figures with crimes against humanity. My post noted that, for these charges to progress to indictment, it was necessary for judge Harmon's decision to be endorsed by his Cambodian counterpart on the tribunal, judge You Bunleng.

During the past week judge Harmon has charged another former Khmer Rouge figure, former Central Zone deputy secretary Ao An, better known as Ta An, and again judge You Bunleng has so far not joined with Harmon to move to indictment.

The Cambodian Government, and particularly Hun Sen, has made clear its opposition to the ECCC continuing to work towards indicting additional defendants, so it is not surprising that judge You Bunleng has not acted to support judge Harmon. What is not clear is what happens now. So far judge You Bunleng is reported as saying that he will 'continue the discussion' with his counterpart. That discussion could go on for some time.

Meanwhile, in a speech that will not be welcomed by Washington, Prime Minister Hun Sen has chosen to express a critical judgment on Michelle Obama's visit to Cambodia, reported in The Interpreter on 23 March. According to the Phnom Penh Post, Hun Sen argued that the US should pay for scholarships for the ten students the First Lady met in Siem Reap. Hun Sen accused the first lady of making false promises about paying for the scholarships, a claim denied by the US Embassy:

Her [Obama's] mission is very good, but I suggest the United States should help completely and not play like this,' he said. 'It is just playing around ­ it is not good. What if she chose 300 students? It would be death. I don't have that money to give.

Although the tone of Hun Sen's speech is not really surprising in the light of his sometimes critical view of the US, his readiness to make these observations so soon after the Michelle Obama visit is puzzling to the extent that it undermines any sense that the visit might have involved a rapprochement between the two countries.

Photo by US Embassy, Phnom Penh.


Elliot Brennan's comparison between the Khmer Rouge and ISIS raises a number of questions.

No one is more aware than I of the terrible cost of Khmer Rouge rule in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979. It was a period that devastated a country I knew well, and which led to the death, as Elliot rightly notes, of at least 1.7 million people, including several of my close friends.

But there are several reasons for offering a more nuanced view of what occurred under the Pol Pot regime than Elliot suggests, and reasons for wondering whether the Cambodian experience has all that much to tell us about what is happening in the Middle East. There are also some factual points that need adjustment.

The fact that the US bombing campaign had a terrible cost is beyond dispute. However, the revelations that bombing began in 1964 under President Johnson, before Nixon's authorisation of Operation Menu, which lasted from 1969 to 1973, needs to be put against the fact that little of this bombing, however damaging it may have been, was in populated areas. During the more than six months I traveled around Cambodia in 1966 (including in the northeast of the country), there was simply no general awareness that bombing was taking place.

There is another problem in relation to the bombing. While it is quite clear that the Khmer Rouge made the bombing a successful basis for propaganda and recruitment, we simply cannot say with any certainty just how much this contributed to its recruitment campaigns. Interviews with former Khmer Rouge cadres can only tell part of the story. For the record, I have acknowledged the importance of the bombing for recruitment in my book Before Kampuchea: Preludes to Tragedy.

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More to the point, and on an issue of fact, the overthrow of Prince Sihanouk was not the result of the American bombing campaign, as Elliot suggests. The coup was mounted by men of the Cambodian right who had been Sihanouk's close associates. It is not correct to link the bombing and the March 1970 coup. The best account of the coup is provided by David Chandler in his book The Tragedy of Cambodian Historywhere he describes the anti-Vietnamese feeling and resentment of Sihanouk's consort's family as prime factors in his overthrow.

As to the extent to which the bombing explains later Khmer Rouge actions, I think this is far from clear.

Philip Short's excellent biography of Pol Pot presents a picture of a man and his close associates who were ready to transform Cambodia well before the US bombing took place. As for the phrase 'Year Zero', now so routinely associated with the Khmer Rouge, David Chandler, whose judgment I accept, maintains that this was never used by them. The term was originally associated, it is suggested, with Lenin. But it seems to have gained currency in relation to Cambodia because of its use as a book title by Francois Ponchaud, Cambodge Année Zéro.

What were the Khmer leaders' views of Cambodia's past?

As Elliot notes, Pol Pot referred to Cambodia's Angkorian past as a symbol of what the nation he now ruled over could achieve. So it is not all that surprising that the physical symbols of the past were not destroyed by the Khmer Rouge regime. While looting on a major scale took place in the Angkor region after the Khmer Rouge was defeated in 1979, there is no evidence of the Khmer Rouge setting out to damage the Angkor temples while it was in power. Indeed, the one serious instance of damage at Angkor Wat appears to have been the result of a missile launched by Lon Nol forces.

The priceless treasures in Phnom Penh's National Museum remained untouched while Pol Pot was in power. And despite claims made in some editions of the Lonely Planet Guide to Cambodia that the Silver Pagoda was looted, my own judgment is that the collection of Buddha images that can be seen there today is very much the same as could be seen before 1975. The one notable loss from the royal palace in the 1975-79 period was the royal regalia. The sacred sword, known as the Preah Khan or 'Lightening of Indra', has never been recovered. 

Action against genocidal groups is indeed a necessity. But one cannot readily equate one genocidal group with another. The lack of a religious element in the Cambodian genocide (or 'auto-genocide', to use Jean Lacouture's term) is surely vitally important given the central role religion plays in the beliefs of ISIS.

In short, one genocide may have some similarity with another, but it is just as important to give due weight to the differences between them.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.


Over the past couple of weeks Phnom Penh has been abuzz with discussion of the visit to Cambodia by Michelle Obama (now completed), with comparisons being drawn with the visit in 1967 of Jacqueline Kennedy. The coverage in the Phnom Penh Post is reflective of the interest shown in the lead-up to the visit, and of the comparisons drawn with Kennedy (disclosure: I am quoted on a number of points in the Post's article).

With the visit announced as long ago as November, it is difficult to judge the extent to which Hun Sen's government will benefit from having the First Lady make such a visit or, conversely, the degree to which Michelle Obama's visit has significance for the the Obama Administration's 'pivot to Asia'. The fact that Michelle Obama has placed great emphasis on the education of young women during her visit has been seen by some commentators as a less-than-coded criticism of the Hun Sen Government's failings more generally, particularly with her reference to education of women making it possible for their participation 'in the political life of their country', which allows them to 'hold their leaders accountable'.

While there could scarcely be a greater contrast between the circumstances in which Jacqueline Kennedy visited and the visit just made by Michelle Obama, there is one underlying similarity: the sense that both the US and Cambodia are concerned not to let their differences overshadow the desirability of a finding a middle path accommodation that suits both their interests. That said, there is no reason to think Hun Sen will change his government's view that China is and will remain Cambodia's most important foreign friend.

Image courtesy of @FLOTUS.


Contrary to media reports of two more 'indictments' of former Khmer Rouge figures by the Cambodian-UN Khmer Rouge Tribunal, what has actually happened is that Meas Muth (the former Khmer Rouge navy commander) and Im Chaem (a former regional detention centre director) have been charged in absentia with crimes against humanity by one of the tribunal's international judges, Mark Harmon.

Judge Harmon has a long record of association with international tribunals and with law enforcement in the US. He joined the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) in 2012.

In taking this action, Judge Harmon is acting in accordance with the tribunal's procedures, which permit a judge to charge individuals without having the agreement of a fellow Cambodian judge — this is why the term 'charged' is correct, rather than 'indicted'. For an indictment to be entered, additional approval is required. And according to the Phnom Penh Post report cited above, Harmon's Cambodian counterpart, Judge You Bunleng, considers the cases against Meas Muth and Im Chaem (listed in court documents as Cases 003 and 004) as already closed.

It appears Prime Minister Hun Sen had at least an inkling that Judge Harmon was about to act, since he delivered a familiar warning against further cases being heard at the ECCC last week. He claimed that if further cases went before the tribunal there was a risk of war breaking out.

So, not for the first time, Hun Sen has shown his deep displeasure at the role played by international elements within the ECCC. For Judge You to now go ahead and endorse his international colleague's decision against the Prime Minister's wishes seems unlikely. If, contrary to all expectations, he were to do so, it would be a striking example of Hun Sen's power being on the wane.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia.


Recent reporting linked to China's Jinghong dam in the far south of Yunnan province raises questions about the extent to which China's dam-building program on the Mekong River will affect mainland Southeast Asian countries downstream.

Jinghong Dam on the Mekong River in China

The Jinghong dam is the most southerly of the 'cascade' of dams China has built, or is building, on the upper reaches of the Mekong River to generate hydroelectricity. Although I observed preliminary work taking place at the dam site upstream from the town of Jinghong as long ago as 2004, official authorisation for construction of the dam was not given until 2008. Since then, rapid construction has  led to the dam's completion; it has been in operation for at least two years now.

Given its geographic proximity to its downstream neighbours Laos and Thailand, and more distantly to Cambodia and Vietnam, there has been ongoing concern in those countries about the extent to which the dam's operations — either the release or the holding back of water from the dam — could affect the use of the river for navigation and fishing. Indeed, concerns about these matters have been raised from the moment construction began, with repeated reports of rapidly fluctuating water levels affecting fishing catches particularly in the region around Chiang Saen in northern Thailand.

During the wet season in September of last year, concern was expressed by many observers in Thailand that increased water flow down the Mekong could result from Chinese authorities discharging large amounts of water from the Jinghong dam at a time when monsoon rainfall meant that the river's level was already very high.

But on this occasion the Mekong River Commission, which monitors water levels, reported that, contrary to fears about possible Chinese actions, there was was no reason to judge that water released from Jinghong would cause flooding downstream.

Now the question of Chinese control over water releases from the Jinghong dam has moved to the opposite concern.

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There have been several reports that the Mekong River is currently at such a low level that cargo boats traveling between Chiang Saen and Guan Lei, the large river port in the far south of Yunnan province, have run aground. The Mekong's water level is always low in February, with the of snow melt from the Himalayas into the river diminishing and the southwestern monsoon yet to raise the river's water height. At this time of year, the river's water level falls below the 1 to 1.2 metres of depth required by the shallow-drafted boats using the river, and reports of boats becoming stranded have been fairly common in recent years. What is interesting about the current situation is the reported readiness of Chinese authorities to give an account of their actions in releasing water from the Jinghong dam on the Mekong to rectify the situation.

The attention now being focused on the Jinghong dam raises broader questions about the long-term consequences of China's dam-building program. If action, or inaction, at Jinghong can have the effects ascribed to it, what will be the effect of water control at China's other dams? Will China's operation of the dams be for the greater benefit of all Mekong countries or simply for its own interests linked to the generation of hydroelectricity? And what will be the ultimate effect of the fact that China's dams on the Mekong are holding back sediment from flowing down the river? This is an issue being studied by a University of Hull research team, as reported on a recent BBC program 'Science in Action'.

Concerns about China's operation of its Mekong dams are directly linked to the future well-being of the more than 60 million people who live downstream in the Lower Mekong Basin. The populations of Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam are deeply dependent on the river functioning as it has for centuries: as a rich source of food and a key to productive agriculture.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user International Rivers.


Nicole George's perceptive pointer to 'La Haine' on The Interpreter as a way into the fraught world of the contemporary France's banlieues is a reminder of the fact that a sizeable section of French society is alienated from the social mainstream by a combustible mix of religion, ethnic origin and the historical experience of colonialism.

This has been the case for many years.

A more recent, if flawed, examination of what this means for France and the French is David Hussey's The French Intifada: The Long War between France and the Arabs, published last year. I say flawed because Hussey's book, although full of useful insights, suffers from a number of problems, many of which are noted in The Guardian.

But there is much that is worthwhile in this book, not least the opening section, 'State of Denial', with its dramatic account of a riot Hussey observed at the Gare du Nord in 2007 involving 'mainly black and African youths' and 'a level of violence that would have shaken most European governments, but here in France the incident seemed unremarkable, even banal.' The rest of his book is an attempt to analyse what it is that makes young men such as the rioters he observed 'soldiers in a "long war" against France and Europe'.

Hussey's book is as much an account of French colonialism in North Africa as a record of the contemporary world and one wishes that his discussion of the Muslims who make up so many of France's prison population went beyond its sketchy characterisation. But in present terms it is well worth reading, as other reviewers in the Financial Times and the New York Times attest.


For the past twelve months I have highlighted statements by Lao officials indicating the Vientiane government's determination to build its controversial dam at Don Sahong in the far south of the county (most recently in my Interpreter post of 10 November 2014). In a 19 January Voice of America interview, Director-General of the Lao Department of Energy Policy and Planning Daovong Phonekeo bluntly rejects environmental criticisms of the dam, saying: 'We are now very sure that (with) the mitigation measures we are going to do, (the dam) would have a very small impact to the downstream, or even the upstream, about fish migration.'

Davong Phonekeo is also frank in outlining the Lao construction program:

We expect to start this dry season (author note: the dry season has already begun, but many areas around the dam site will only be fully dry by the end of January), after the prior consultation (with representatives of Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam) has been completed. The prior consultation will be completed by 25 January, 2015. After that the company (Mega First) will sign some contract agreements with the contractors...There will be some mobilisations within the (construction) camp, which takes maybe to more months. After that, they can start with the excavation and construction work. The project will be completed by 2018.

Ominously, Daovong Phonekeo also says that, in conjunction with Thailand, Vientiane has 'seven projects that are feasible to develop.'

This strikes to the heart of environmental concerns about the Mekong's future. As Phil Hirsch of the University of Sydney's Mekong Resource Centre has pointed out, once one dam has been built on the Mekong's mainstream below China, the likelihood is that others will follow.

These concerns underline the extent to which the Mekong has already been dramatically altered in character in the space of a mere thirty years.

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Before the 1980s there were no dams on the river, neither in China nor in Southeast Asia after the Mekong flows out of Yunnan province. But since that time China has constructed no fewer than five dams on the upper reaches of the river and is building of a further two dams with the possibility of two more to come.  And Chinese clearing of the river from northeastern Thailand to Yunnan province at the beginning of the century has opened that section of the river to navigation, which previously was very limited.

Construction of the Xayaburi dam in Laos — the first dam to be built on the Mekong below China — is already well under way.

All this is taking place at a time when there is growing concern about Chinese control of the major river systems with their origins in Tibet: the Yangtze, the Salween, the Mekong and the Brahmaputra. Brahma Chellaney discusses this in strategic terms, particularly in relation to the Indian subcontinent, in his 2012 book, Water: Asia's New Battleground, while recently Michael Buckley has focused on the environmental issues in his Meltdown in Tibet: China's Reckless Destruction of Ecosystems from the Highlands of Tibet to the Deltas of Asia.

It is hard to overstate the likely damage being done to the Mekong. The overwhelming weight of scientific opinion argues that the long-term effects of the Chinese dams will be negative for the countries downstream of China, though it may be decades before their full effects are obvious. With the dams Laos is planning and those which China is already constructing, the damage could be more immediate. More than 60 million people live in the Lower Mekong Basin below China and they are heavily dependent on the river for food and agriculture. One striking figure makes the point: almost 80% of the Cambodian population's annual protein intake comes from fish caught in the Mekong and its tributaries. Just as importantly Vietnam's Mekong delta region relies heavily on the Mekong for its agricultural production.

Dam building that trades future fish stocks and agricultural production against more immediate returns from the sale of electricity from hydro dams is a poor bargain.

Photo by Flickr user US Mission to the UN Rome.


Amid the range of articles marking Hun Sen's 30 years as Cambodia's prime minister, including Elliot Brennan's in The Interpreter and a similarly thoughtful piece by Mark Dodd in the Financial Review of 19 January drawing on personal experience in Cambodia, there has been very little reflection on why the West has tolerated Hun Sen.

After all, the criticisms being aired of him today have applied over most if not the whole of his domination of Cambodian politics since 1993. There have been an almost endless number of occasions when he has demonstrated his readiness to preside over corruption, brutality and a readiness to subvert popular will.

The most notable of the latter was his refusal to cede power to the opposition FUNCINPEC party in the UN-sponsored elections of 1993. Four years later, in 1997, he sanctioned the use of force in a putsch that ended any possibility of Prince Ranariddh's playing an effective role in Cambodia's politics, while Hun Sen's forces carried out a large number of extra-judicial killings. This all took place after men undoubtedly linked to Hun Sen's regime mounted a fatal grenade attack against a march led by political rival Sam Rainsy.

The extent to which Hun Sen, his extended family and  long-time cronies have been associated with corrupt activity in relation to the illegal exploitation of timber reserves has been revealed in detail by Global Witness, an NGO now banned from Cambodia. A broader pattern of land grabbing for favoured associates of the regime has become so common that it receives almost no external commentary.

So far as foreign aid to Cambodia is concerned, Sebastian Strangio in his new and excellent book Hun Sen's Cambodia has observed that, 'since the first donor meeting (of the Cambodia Development Cooperation Forum) was held in Tokyo in 1992' Cambodia has shown 'a more or less complete lack of progress on various reform "benchmarks" formulated by its Western "partners"'. The result, as Strangio summarises, is that very little money has reached those it was supposed to help. Western governments continue to give aid to Cambodia almost regardless of the regime's behaviour.

So what explains this state of affairs? It is hard to go past two old fashioned words: 'shame' and 'guilt'. 

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Cambodia's involvement in the Vietnam War led to a widespread view in the West that accepted, and in many cases welcomed, the overthrow of the Lon Nol regime in 1975. Anything had to be better than what had gone before, particularly in view of Nixon's 'secret bombing' of Cambodia. Indeed, among 'progressive' opinion the Khmer Rouge regime that took power in April 1975 was lavishly praised. Those of us who took a publicly contrary view were very much in the minority. This was despite the fact that Henry Kamm of the New York Times documented what was happening within Cambodia in detail from July 1975 onwards. When other observers such as Francois Ponchaud wrote of what he had seen when Pol Pot took power in his Cambodia: Year Zero, his views were sharply discounted by such French luminaries as Jean Lacouture. When the full awfulness of the regime became apparent to even the most biased observer after the Vietnamese overthrew Pol Pot in January 1979, the result was a widespread feeling of shame and guilt.

This sense of guilt has persisted to the extent that there is still a reluctance by Western governments, Australia included, to talk about and deal with Cambodia in a frank fashion. Cambodia is treated as if it is just another Southeast Asian country. But it is not. No other ASEAN country has a leadership closely associated with an earlier genocidal regime. While no one has ever proved that Hun Sen, when he was an army officer during the Khmer Rouge regime, committed atrocities, little public discussion has taken place of the fact that he and many of his associates in high positions worked for two years or more while Pol Pot was in power, before defecting to Vietnam.

In the light of the most recent elections when his party suffered a major loss of votes, Hun Sen's survival as Cambodia's leader is facing the prospect of real challenge, not as the result of any action by the West but because of domestic reaction to his style of government. Some might argue that this is the best way for change to occur. Whether this is so, the West's failures in relation to Cambodia will be a reason for reflection for many years to come.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.