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Thailand Touted for Rare Move to Drop Chinese Plan for Mekong River

Activists protest against a Beijing-backed project to dredge and blow open a stretch of the Mekong River in northern Thailand in January 2017. (International Rivers)

Rights groups and researchers have welcomed Thailand's decision to cancel a Beijing-backed project to dredge and blow open a shallow and rocky stretch of the Mekong River along the Thai-Lao border.

The move is a rare victory for groups and communities fighting to save Southeast Asia's most important river from overdevelopment.

Beijing's plan — endorsed by Laos, Myanmar and Thailand in 2000 — was to make the stretch of rapids navigable for larger cargo ships hoping to ply the Mekong between China's landlocked Yunnan province and the busy trade routes of the South China Sea. Rights groups and local communities feared it would destroy critical fish habitat and their way of life.

Thai government spokeswoman Trisulee Trisaranakul said the cabinet scrapped the plan Tuesday.

"The reasons is ...China does not support the project anymore and it affects the people of Thailand, because Thai people do not want to make it happen," she told VOA.

Pianporn Deetes, Thailand campaign director for International Rivers, which advocates for sustainable riverine management, called it "a momentous win for the Mekong."

A boat motors down a rocky stretch of the Mekong River in northern Laos in November 2019. (Zsombor Peter/VOA)
A boat motors down a rocky stretch of the Mekong River in northern Laos in November 2019. (Zsombor Peter/VOA)

Were the project to move forward, it "would transform the river from a life-giving watershed [in] to an industrial corridor where transnational corporations profit at a staggering cost to local livelihoods and biodiversity, rivaled only by the Amazon," she said in a statement.

"But this week’s decision by the Thai cabinet serves as a disruption to the reckless rush to transform and capitalize on the rich resources of the Mekong River. It provides some hope that another future is still possible — one that fully accounts for the Mekong’s vital ecological, social and cultural values."

Critics of the project say the rapids are a breeding ground of the critically endangered, and aptly named, Mekong giant catfish, which can grow up to 3 meters in length and weigh in at 300 kilograms. They also are worried that transforming the scenic waterway into a busy shipping lane would kill off the tourism that helps sustain many communities along its banks.

Pianporn gives much of the credit for the Thai government's about face to a pair of grassroots campaign collectives — the Chiang Khong Conservation Group and the Thai Mekong People’s Network — for putting up a stiff and sustained fight with both the Thai government and project developer the China Communications Construction Company.

FILE - Sightseers play on a sandbar in the Mekong River in Nakhon Phanom province, northeastern Thailand, Dec. 4, 2019.
FILE - Sightseers play on a sandbar in the Mekong River in Nakhon Phanom province, northeastern Thailand, Dec. 4, 2019.

Chiang Khong's Niwat Roykaew said many locals at first doubted the use of taking on such formidable foes, according to the International Rivers statement.“

But this proves that we can do it, with evidence-based campaigns. At last this project is officially canceled," he said.

Although China had quietly backed away from the project about a year ago, cutting off funding for further feasibility studies, the Thai cabinet's decision Tuesday was the "final nail in the coffin," Brian Eyler, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Stimson Center, who heads the research group's Mekong Policy Project, told VOA.

"The local community activists in northern Thailand should be commended for their tenacity and tirelessness. Wins like this don't often happen in the Mekong," he said.

But Eyler said the activists also were lucky their concerns dovetailed with those of the Thai military, ever wary of China's regular armed patrols of the Mekong well past its own border.

"In this instance Thailand's justifiable security concerns lined up with the very justifiable concerns of well-organized community groups, and the project was canceled — regardless of what others in Thailand thought toward the benefits of more commerce on the Mekong," he said.

Thailand's reverse course on a Beijing-backed project is rare. But China's ever-expanding infrastructure push across the region has been hitting resistance or running aground elsewhere as well.

Since Malaysia's voters booted a coterie of corruption-mired leaders from office in mid-2018, the new government has scaled back the size and cost of Beijing-backed projects for a port and railway that threatened to drown a country already swimming in debt. In Myanmar, China's bid to build the Myitsone hydropower dam has met strong resistance from locals and has been on hold since the country's military government embarked on democratic reforms in 2011.

"In countries where local people impacted negatively by these projects can take action to voice concerns and push for a better deal or a postponement or cancellation, we do see Chinese companies responding by increasing standards or transparency or foregoing projects," Eyler said. "This, however, is not happening in countries like Laos or Cambodia where civil society and impacted stakeholders rarely have a voice."

China already has straddled its stretch of the river with 11 hydropower dams, while Laos and Cambodia are either operating, building or planning at least as many more with funding from China, Thailand and Vietnam. Researchers have warned of the river's ecological collapse if they all get built.