Something powerful happens within a society when young students, scholars and activists make it their priority to research and discuss issues of importance to them. Although the issue maybe small, in relation to the size of ASEAN and the Mekong region, significant attention can be drawn to the issue when young people are both passionate and persistent. These voices thus gain attention within domestic and regional political spheres, ensuring that regional development is sustainable and decision-making inclusive. This collection of stories, independent research and personal accounts of issues throughout the Mekong region demonstrates how young people can effectively challenge the establishment and bring about change. Each individual paper gains legitimacy and credibility from the personal narrative and first-hand experience of the author. Mekong governments and corporations will constantly be held to account by a collaborative cross-border youth movement that strengthens Mekong regional civil society. This emerging Mekong regional civil society and youth movement provide a crucial check-and-balance system that draws attention to corrupt and unsustainable practices.
The very fundamentals of ASEAN, its principles and aims, make regional governments reluctant to criticize one another. Arguably the most problematic institution within ASEAN is the ‘so-called’ ASEAN Way. Numerous scholars argue that the ASEAN Way facilitates regional security on a state-to-state basis. Although is it possible to argue that ASEAN has prevented regional and bilateral conflict, the ASEAN Way neglects domestic and border development issues. It is within this neglect that civil society movements, especially those lead by local youth, can play an active part in facilitating positive change by drawing light on issues.
There is a collision point that puts local activists, youth lead organisations and NGOs against that of state-sponsored, endorsed and constructed development projects. Although there is a need for development to ensure continued prosperity, there is a desperate need for more appropriate checks-and-balances to ensure local communities and peoples are not negatively affected. All papers within this book clearly demonstrate this ‘collision’ point, where large-scale development projects collide with the livelihoods of local populations. With all ASEAN counties enforcing significant limitations on the local press, restricting the ability to challenge government decisions, local youth and civil societies are crucial in drawing attention to issues. Investigating the lack of access to information is an important starting point. Many governments and corporations deliberately exclude local communities in decision-making processes by producing reports that are not in local languages and using complicated and jargonistic language.
The renowned Economist and International Development expert Jeffery Sachs calls the current period we are living in, ‘The Age of Sustainable Development’, meaning there is no more pressing issue to ASEAN and Mekong member states than that of sustainable development. Sachs argues there are numerous environmental threats that are continuing to gain in severity, “…humanity is changing the Earth’s climate, the availability of fresh water, the ocean’s chemistry, and the habits of other species..” (Sachs 2015:2). He then poses the question, “…what happens when the world economy is on a collision course with the physical environment?” This collision is obvious within the Mekong region as development increasingly affects locals and the environment in which they live.
Sachs states there are three crucial factors of sustainable development that are all intrinsically interconnected and must receive an equal amount of governmental and societal respect. They include economic, social and environment factors. He then concludes that all three factors rely on one crucial factor, good governance, not just governmental governance but also corporate governance. It is then obvious that without good governmental structures, there is a lack of accountability, endemic corruption and a neglect for aspects of ones population. Through Jeffery Sachs’ assessment it is clear that Mekong countries will continue to struggle and fail at sustainable development until good governance is achieved. Sachs states, “…Multinational companies are often the agents of public corruption, bribing officials to bend regulations or tax policies in their favour and engaging in tax evasion, money laundering, and reckless environmental damage” (Sachs 2015:4).
The local communities affected by developmental projects mentioned in this book are in desperate need of their respective governments to respect the principles of good governance. In drawing attention to unsustainable development practices, civil society movements highlight the need to improve the internal governance of Mekong countries. Without good governance, individual citizens will constantly face complicated political infrastructures, corrupt bureaucracies, and powerful and unregulated multinational and national companies.
Li Miao Miao clearly demonstrates what a lack of domestic and regional governance can do, especially in the case of powerful overseas investors, and how affected communities often have limited or no access to appropriate grievance mechanisms. The construction of the Lower Sesan 2 Dam makes clear the Cambodian government’s desire for rapid development, and the failure of the country’s legal system to guarantee the rights of its citizens.
Aye Mon Thu, Khaing Mi Phue Aung and Saw Lay Ka Paw clearly provide evidence for the collision point between the need for development, the lack of regulations and good governance and a neglect for local communities. In their individual case studies of environmental and development issues in Myanmar, local communities are constantly challenged by companies looking to maximise profits. They also demonstrate the Myanmar government’s haphazard approach towards regulations, and the poor implementation of laws that have made it into legislation.
Ashijya Otwong describes another phenomenon of bad governance in the Mekong region, providing evidence of how Thai companies have shifted their investments to neighbouring countries with less developed legal systems and fewer regulations on environmental protection. Although arguments can be made that Thailand has relatively good environmental protection laws in comparison to other Mekong countries, Thai companies are not currently required to follow domestic Thai laws outside Thailand.
Dokkeo Sykham and Luuk Nam Ou concentrate on the plight of local communities in Laos and how the construction of dams on the Mekong River and its tributaries affect local populations and their livelihoods. Food production is significantly damaged due to changes in fish migration and soil erosion, and affected communities have received little or no compensation from companies involved or the government. The immense environmental impacts of dam construction on the Mekong is often ignored by Mekong governments in favor of...(can we say something about long-term food security being sacrificed for short-term profits)?
Ham Oudom highlights the positive power of activism in Cambodia, as the campaign against the Araeng Valley hydro-power dam was successful in its bid to temporarily hold off construction. The Cambodian Prime Minister stopped the construction of the proposed dam during the current governmental period, due to expire in 2018, meaning although there has been an initial victory of those supporting sustainable development, the flight must continue beyond 2018. The Araeng Valley case is a powerful proof to other environmentalists throughout the Mekong region that their voices can be heard and projects can be halted.
Tran Chi Thoi, Nguyen Khiem and Vu Hai Linh all discuss issues related to the lack of sustainable development in Vietnam and the limited ability local communities have to participate in decision-making around projects that will impact their livelihoods. With the Dak Mi 4 Hydropower Dam significantly affecting local communities downstream in Vietnam, producing soil erosion and dumping sand on previously fertile lands, local communities have been actively trying to access compensation and credible information from government institutions. In a similar manner, limestone mining is having dire consequences on both the environment and the health of local communities, with locals having little or no say in processes that significantly change their way of life.
Many individuals within Mekong countries argue that rapid development is necessary to improve the lives of the majority. Normally ‘the majority’ means the government’s primary support bases, located in large cities such as Hanoi, Vientiane, Phnom Penh, and Yangon. Thus governments find it easy to neglect local communities. The Mekong environment is interconnected, however. The articles within this book are an important step in demonstrating the need to promote transparency and good governance within ASEAN. EarthRights International deserves much praise for the time and effort they put into equipping students to share their powerful stories. It is this generation that will effectively lead Mekong civil society in the years to come, and their strong commitment is sure to bring about positive change.
Sachs, J. 2015. ‘The Age of Sustainable Development’. Columbia University Press. New York.
Land and River Grabbing will be out on the 15th of June, 2015 - by Chiang Mai University Press.