Mekong riverbank at Thailand's Mukdahan Province, filled with construction poles.

US re-engagement with Mekong region poses opportunities and ambiguity, say CSOs

The US plan to invest over 20 million USD to support Mekong countries in clean energy transition, environmental protection, and regional interconnection was made at the end of the Bangkok APEC meeting. In the eyes of civil societies along the riverbank, the final picture still leaves many questions unanswered.

Mekong river and its unique small islands. (Source: Thai People Network from Eight Mekong Provinces)

At the US Embassy residence on 20 November, Vice President Kamala Harris convened climate activists from Northern Thailand and business leaders related to clean energy innovation. 

The Vice President announced that the Biden Administration intends to request additional funding of up to 20 million USD in addition to the Japan-U.S.-Mekong Power Partnership (JUMPP), the cooperation framework announced in August 2019. The money is aimed at providing energy security, greater regional power flows, clean energy integration, decarbonisation, and resilience. 

In addition to the fund, the US aims to discuss the importance of environmental protection, natural resource governance, youth empowerment, and civic engagement. They will also discuss opportunities for economic development, entrepreneurship and innovation in the clean energy future.

(Middle) Kamala Harris gives a speech before the roundtable discussion on Sunday.

"Our climate action is not only necessary to protect people or our planet or the natural resources, but also a powerful driver of economic growth, something we've been talking about actually in the past couple of days in the context of APEC," said the Vice President on Sunday.

Voices from below in the top-down battle

The Mekong subregion is an area that for decades has seen a strategic battle for influence between economic giants in the name of development. More than a dozen dams have been built along 4,800 km of the Mekong, with 11 in upstream China.

Lacking a regional framework to co-manage dam operations, the flow of the river has been left to the riparian state accords. This anarchistic arrangement greatly affects the livelihood of people along the river, especially those who relied on the river for food and livelihoods. 

Scrutinizing US, China Mekong cooperation: the new regional battlefield

After attending the talk with the Vice President, Niwat Roykaew, founder of Rak Chiang Khong, a conservation group known for their advocacy of sustainable development along the Mekong river, told Prachatai that the discussion on Sunday was a good starting point for civil participation in Mekong river development and he wants this in all other international frameworks.

Niwat addressed the Vice President about the lack of civil society participation in development projects despite them being a numerical majority of stakeholders. He also emphasised that dam energy is not a clean source of energy, all of which were heeded and responded positively by Kamala.

However, he still sees no clear picture of what is going to happen next.

“Right now, in real concrete terms, I still don’t know what will come out of it. But I try to make people’s participation happen under any framework, because the heart of the matter is the development of the people and the Mekong river.

Niwat Roykaew

“America and China have many things where they agree and where they differ, but [if] we want to have them support anything to do with the Mekong river, we have to address it,” said Niwat.

Paul Sein Twa, Executive Director of the Karen Environmental and Social Action Network, told Prachatai that his organisation works on the development of indigenous Karen communities on the Thailand-Myanmar border and environmental issues along the Salween river. They are also now working on supporting Karen people who have fled the civil war in Myanmar.

He shares Niwat’s view that the final picture is still unclear.

“What I have been doing, and what Kru Tee (Niwat) is talking about with the Mekong, is looking at community rights as a more central issue than investment in production. We don’t emphasize material issues because it is not our priority. We see that in the protection of nature, and reducing the problem of climate change, community rights and indigenous rights are important things because we can’t overlook them,” said Paul.

Seeking international support

Although the path ahead is unclear, the US position is still seen by the two advocates as an opportunity to see a better side of what they have been facing.

In December, the “People’s Council”, a conference of CSOs working on problems along the geographically-connected Mekong, Loei, and Mun rivers, will be held in Nong Khai Province. The Rak Chiang Khong group is also seeking publicity and representation from local authorities and international actors.

On Paul’s side, he wants Thailand and the US to understand how the war in Myanmar has affected people and that humanitarian support and civilian protection are urgently needed.

“For us, the CSOs have been pushing for the US to cooperate with the Thai government to understand the problems that the Karen people are facing … We want the Thai government to open the border to provide temporary refuge for 2-3 months …But in the past, we have seen it was only a matter of a couple days before they were driven back.

“We also want direct support us. We don’t want the money to come through the Myanmar military government, because the Myanmar military is the cause of refugees and internally displaced people,” said Paul who thinks aid through the Tatmadaw will be redirected.

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