EVENT [RESOURCES]: Understanding the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation Framework and China’s role in the Mekong Region [Bangkok, 3 September 2018]

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Program and List of Panelists:

08.15 - 09.00  Registration

09.00 - 09.15  Welcome remarks by Assoc. Prof. Dr. Ake Tangsupvattana, Dean of Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University

09.15 - 10.45  Session 1: The Belt and Road Initiative:  Geopolitical implications for Asia

Moderator: Asst. Prof. Dr. Carl Middleton, Center for Social Development Studies, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University

  • 'Geopolitics and Geoeconomics of the Belt and Road Initiative' by Dr. Thitinan Pongsudhirak, Institute of Security and International Studies (ISIS), Chulalongkorn University

  • 'The Belt and Road Initiative: A Perspective from China' by Mr. Li Hong,Permanent Mission of the People's Republic of China to the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and Pacific (UNESCAP)

  • 'What does the Belt and Road Initiative mean for US-Thailand relations?' by Benjamin Zawacki, Independent Analyst

  • 'Debt Diplomacy?: The experience of Sri Lanka' by Amantha Perera, Journalist

10.45 - 11.15  Coffee break

11.15 - 12.45  Session 2: Transboundary Water Cooperation – Progress and Challenges

Moderator: Dr. Ukrist Pathmanand, Mekong Research Center, Institute of Asian Studies, Chulalongkorn University  

12.45 - 13.30  Lunch

13.30 - 14.45  Session 3: Rise of the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation Framework: Emerging cooperation issues

Moderator: Kamol Sukin, China Dialogue

14.45 - 15.15  Coffee Break

15.15 - 16.45  Session 4: Reporting on the Mekong and China’s role: Trends, challenges and successes for Southeast Asia’s media

Moderator: Sim Kok Eng Amy, Earth Journalism Network

16.45 - 17.00  Closing Reflections

  • Dr. Sam Geall, China Dialogue

  • Professor Surichai Wun’gaeo, Center for Peace and Conflict Studies, Chulalongkorn University

EVENT [REPORT]: Policy Forum on Understanding the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation Framework and China's role in the Mekong region [Bangkok, 3 September 2018]

On 3 September 2018, the Center for Social Development Studies (CSDS) and the Faculty of Political Science of Chulalongkorn University hosted a policy forum discussing the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) and China's role in the Mekong region. The forum was co-organized with chinadialogue, The Third Pole, and Earth Journalism Network. Over ninety participants were spending the full day discussing important issues on the cooperation framework and initiatives in Southeast Asia.

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The Dean of the Faculty of Political Science, Assoc. Prof. Dr. Ake Tangsupvattana, opened the event with welcoming remarks highlighting how the countries of mainland Southeast Asia are facing a period of rapid change with growing flows of investment from China into a range of projects. He observed that whilst economic growth continues, there remain unresolved challenges on environmental sustainability, social equity, and public participation.

The first session, moderated Dr. Carl Middleton from CSDS, discussed the geopolitical implications of the Belt and Road Initiative for Asia. Dr. Thitinan Pongsudhirak from the Institute of Security and International Studies (ISIS) of Chulalongkorn University raised the question on how the Belt and Road Initiative posed challenges to the existing legal international regimes, while Mr. Li Hong who is the Permanent Representative of China to United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and Pacific (UNESCAP) discussed the ideas behind the Belt and Road Initiatives and how it is an open initiative and it is expected to be a joint effort between the countries instead of just centering on China. Legal and Political Analyst Benjamin Zawacki explained the impact of Belt and Road Initiatives for the relations between Thailand and the US, including US proposals for a Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy, as well as the crucial role Thailand could be playing once it takes up the ASEAN chair in 2019. Wrapping up the session was Amantha Perera, a journalist from Sri Lanka, who shared the experience of Sri Lanka dealing with investments from China which has led in some cases to a so-called “Debt Trap” when loans failed to perform. He also reminded how environmental impact from investments are rarely being properly assessed and not publicly disclosed.

The second session, moderated by Dr. Ukrist Pathmanand from the Mekong Research Center of Chulalongkorn University, discussed the progress and challenges on transboundary water cooperation. Dr. Anoulak Kittikhoun, Chief Strategy and Partnership Officer of the Mekong River Commission (MRC) Secretariat explained about the MRC and how it was increasingly engaging with China, including through the LMC. Dr. John Dore, Lead Water Specialist from Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade highlighted how around transboundary water governance on the Mekong River involved not only governments, but multiple actors and coalitions through multi-track diplomacy that influences development directions and decision-making. Meanwhile Supalak Ganjanakhundee from The Nation newspaper reflected on the Xe Pian - Xe Nam Noi disaster and how he expected the existing initiatives in the Mekong Region, including the MRC, to play a bigger part in responding to the disaster.

The third session, moderated by Kamol Sukin from chinadialogue, discussed emerging cooperation issues with the rise of the LMC. Courtney Weatherby from the Stimson Centre raised the issue of energy market shifts. In particular, she addressed how the price of non-hydropower renewables were dropping quickly, there are now innovations in energy transmission, and how China’s current excess hydropower could drastically alter investment needs in the Lower-Mekong region. Dr. Chayanis Krittasudthacheewa from Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) explained the necessity of sustainable scientific cooperation across the region to address knowledge gaps. She also highlighted how better approaches to knowledge production and need to influence policy, in particular the “co-production of knowledge” between researchers and practioners. Dr. Apichai Sunchindah, an Independent Development Specialist, highlighted the lack of sufficient cooperation between different existing regional frameworks and how ASEAN could help in backing initiatives in the Mekong Region to balance the influence of China.

In the last session, moderated by Sim Kok Eng Amy from Earth Journalism Network, journalists from China, Myanmar, and Vietnam shared the trends, challenges, and successes for Southeast Asia's media on reporting the Mekong and China's role. Wang Yan from News China highlighted journalists' role in reporting regional issues such as helping to facilitate communications between upstream and downstream countries and communities. Zayar Hlaing from Mawkun Magazine in Myanmar shared the story of the Sino-Myanmar pipeline project and its impact on the livelihood of people living along the pipeline. Bui Tien Dung from Vietnam shared about the importance of networking and capacity building for journalists working on environmental and social issues in the Mekong Region to improve the quality of the reporting. This session also highlighted the importance of cooperation between media and research institutes to help inform public debates.

For the closing remarks, Dr. Sam Geall from chinadialogue highlighted the importance of improved communication between China and the Lower Mekong countries and the role that journalists could play. Professor Surichai Wun'gaeo from the Center for Peace and Conflict Studies of Chulalongkorn University ended the forum with a reminder that any regional inter-governmental cooperation needs to be understood from the perspective of the impact on people’s lives, and emphasized the importance of always putting the well-being of people as the priority.

The shared presentations from this discussion can be accessed here. Some of the sessions were broadcast on Facebook Live and can also be viewed on the above link.

EVENT: Discovering Local Adaptation Strategies to Flooding: Third Pole Media Workshop Heads to Koh Kret

By Robert Irven

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Tucked away just north of Bangkok proper sits a tiny island on the Chao Phraya River, home to both local Thai and decedents of ethnic Mon communities who have shared this location for over 200 years. Koh Kret was the site of the second day of the CSDS/ MAIDS/ Third Pole media workshop, where our visiting journalists and new MAIDS students were taken for a day of observation and hands-on learning on 21 August 2017. Corresponding with the workshop’s main themes, the day focused on learning the island’s history and current responses to regular and severe floods, the utility of local/traditional knowledge, sustainable tourism and community cooperation and activism.  

ur group was first greeted and briefed by the islands main administrators, who gave a brief history of the island, and generously answered in detail many of the group’s questions relating to flood prevention and how urban and environmental changes were affecting the island. They emphasized a ranged of challenges, including river bank erosion, managing pollution, and the impacts of flooding.

Wasting no time, the group was then whisked away to a farming area, where a tour of a traditional fruit farm was given, allowing for a glimpse into Thailand’s agricultural practices and the challenges this sector now faces. Koh Kret island is famous for its durian fruit, which can cost up to THB 10,000 per kilogram. The farmer explained that whilst the durian trees are vulnerable to flooding, some farms build dykes to protect their trees, and there was a wider desire for more comprehensive flood protection dyke infrastructure for the whole island.

After cooling off away from the brutal midday monsoon heat, the group arrived at the community center for some traditional Thai snacks and sweets, alongside an introduction of community life and how the seven moo’s [villages] interact and work together to keep traditions alive and teach its many daily tourists about their lives on Koh Kret.

After a relaxing lunch alongside the river, the group broke up, with the MAIDS graduate students going off to practice some of their newly learned research methods and the journalists continuing their tour of the island, ending at the island’s famous pottery handicraft center, where traditional clay techniques were displayed and explained.

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Overall, the field trip to Koh Kret was an opportunity to learn firsthand the experiences of communities who regularly experience flooding of the Chao Phraya River. We discovered that whilst the floods are regularly disruptive, the communities and the local authorities collaborate together to prepare for floods as much as possible, and minimize the harm should flooding occur. Access to information is key to enable preparation, alongside a sense of community solidarity that ensures mutual support when flooding creates difficulties.

EVENT: 'Water and the Neighborhood': A Diversity of Ideas Flow Through Media Workshops at Chulalongkorn University

By Robert Irven

This week, the Center for Social Development Studies (CSDS) at Chulalongkorn University, in partnership with The Third Pole, welcomed journalists from Bangladesh, Bhutan, China and India for a three-day media workshop entitled “Water and the Neighborhood.” Discussion centered on the social and ecological issues surrounding the major transboundary rivers of South and Southeast Asia, including the Brahmaputra, Mekong and Salween Rivers. 

Also in attendance was the new class of graduate students from the Faculty of Political Science’s Master of Arts in International Development Studies (MAIDS). They took the opportunity to kick off their studies and discuss development in action. They also had a chance for some initial fieldwork with a visit to Koh Kret Island on the Chaophraya River on the second day of the workshop. 

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Participants and guests from the first day of the media workshop (Photo by Robert Irven, 2017)

The speakers held a vast array of experiences and backgrounds, including from international organizations such as UN Environment. the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI), and the Mekong River Commission, academics such as from the Indian Institute of Technology (Guwahati), as well as media organizations such as the Mekong Eye and civil society groups such as International Rivers. They engaged in a variety of presentations and discussions with the goal of sharing knowledge, exploring the context of transboundary river contestation and cooperation, and providing journalism-specific insights to benefit those in the field on the front lines of these often highly contentious, transboundary issues.  

While presentations ranged in scope and topic, common themes and questions helped focus debate that allowed for meaningful interactions in a multicultural gathering and saw academics, civil society organizations and journalists all learning from one another. One commonly discussed theme, for example, was the importance of placing riparian communities central to decision-making, including through engagement with River Basin Organizations (RBO’s). Whether in the form of formal networks, as represented by inter-governmental RBOs, or via informal arrangements, networks are now seen as vital to the regional conservation and sustainable development of these delicate ecologies, where humans and the natural world intersect in a variety of ways. From the Salween River, shared between China, Myanmar and Thailand, to the Brahmaputra/Jamuna River that starts in China and flows through four countries in South Asia, accelerated and often poorly planned large water infrastructure projects are threatening the existing ways of life of tens of millions of people that depend on the life-giving qualities of these waterways, where communities that have built their lives around nature for centuries. RBO’s at their best may act as a focal point for community, government and non-state actors to gather knowledge and a platform to encourage conversation and decision-making from all sides. 

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Field trip to Ko Kret to learn about traditional life and flood adaptation (Photo by Robert Irven, 2017) 

As the Director of the MAIDS Program, Assistant Professor Dr. Naruemon Thabchumpon, reiterated during the kickoff of the event, the fate of the region’s rivers and basins and the communities that depend on them hang in the balance, so it is the type of cooperation and knowledge sharing undertaken at this event that becomes crucial for all nations to succeed in their conservation efforts. Saw John Bright, speaking for the Karen Environmental and Social Action Network (KESAN), pointed out that given the variety of challenges faced throughout the region, it will take equally innovative solutions and management to fix many of the long-term problems that are faced, including community based natural resource management and in the case of the Salween River, he proposed support for the establishment of a “Salween Peace Park.” 

Without the discovery and documenting of new and lesser-known stories by the media and academics alike, inclusive and fair decision-making around transboundary rivers is highly unlikely. With the tools and knowledge gained over the past week, journalists and experts alike left not only better prepared to continue their work on these issues, but more energized and galvanized for the challenges ahead.

EVENT: Salween Local Research Exhibition at Thai Studies Conference

Local researchers from villages along the Salween River, which flows through Myanmar, Thailand and China, have been conducting research into the social and environmental issues related to the river for the past two years. Their research shows water governance challenges from the perspective of the village.

Their work is on display at the Thai Studies Conference in Chiang Mai, Thailand from 15 to 18 July 2017. Come visit their display in the Exhibition Hall, and meet the researchers in person.

The research is a part of the Salween Water Governance project.

INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE: Insights on Recovering Co-existing Wetlands and Farming Systems

The importance of recognizing the value of agro-ecological systems in wetlands in Southeast Asia was the main message delivered at the SUMERNET research partners meeting in Phnom Penh, Cambodia on 29 March 2017. Dr Outhai Soukkhy, Dr. Nguyen Van Kien and Dr. Carl Middleton shared the main scientific findings and policy messages of the RECOVER project. They also emphasized the benefits of undertaking "co-production of knowledge" research methods, so as to involve all actors sharing a policy or on-the-ground challenge.

  • A poster summarizing the RECOVER project can be downloaded here.

  • The presentation summarizing the main project findings can be downloaded here.

EVENT: Mapping Out Policies and Practices of the Salween-Thanlwin-Nu River Basin: A Framework and Discussion for the Future of the Basin

At present, key decisions are being taken that will determine the future path of the Nu-Salween-Thanlwin River. In this session, we shared a “pathways” analysis of the latest developments shaping water governance in the basin. In revealing the range of visions for the future of the Salween basin, based on our research over the previous year, we sought to open a discussion about the outcomes at the local, national and transnational level of a range of potential development pathways, including the implications from the perspective of sustainability and social justice.

The session was chaired by Dr. Vanessa Lamb (York University) and Prof Saw Win (Senior Research Associate, Center for Social Development Studies).

The following presentations were made:

  • Which path to take? Pathways for the Nu-Salween-Thanlwin River by Dr. Carl Middleton, Center for Social Development Studies, Chulalongkorn University [Download PowerPoint]

  • Development Pathways: The case of the Nu River by Dr. Yu Xiaogang and Chen Xiangxue, Green Watershed [Download PowerPoint]

  • Myanmar Salween Pathways by Jeff Rutherford and Saw John Bright, KESAN [Download PowerPoint]

  • Thailand Salween Pathways by Dr. Carl Middleton, Center for Social Development Studies, Chulalongkorn University [Download PowerPoint]