Archive for February, 2012

February 29, 2012

Thai Continues Work on Disputed Dam, Ignoring Regional Pact

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Posted Wednesday, February 29th, 2012 at 4:55 am

An environmental group says a Thai company is going ahead with work on a controversial hydroelectric dam on the Lower Mekong River, despite an agreement to postpone a final decision on the project.

U.S.-based International Rivers says it has discovered that preliminary construction has continued on the $3.5 billion Xayaburi Dam in Laos, including an access road in and out of the area.

The regional Mekong River Commission, which includes Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, agreed in December that further study was needed to assess the dam’s environmental impact, though the decision is not legally binding.

Pianporn Deetes, International River’s Thailand campaign coordinator, tells VOA the dam could have an uncertain environmental impact on the 60 million people who live along the Mekong River basin and depend on its fisheries for their livelihoods.

“The impact would not only be on the dam side, or in Thailand, but also go to Cambodia and delta, in Vietnam, the Mekong Delta, which is the rice bowl of Vietnam.”

Deetes says Thailand does not need the electricity the proposed Xayaburi Dam will produce.

Laos, one of the world’s poorest nations, expects a huge economic benefit from selling most of the dam’s 1,200 kilowatts of hydroelectric power into Thailand.

February 29, 2012

Xayaburi Dam: Thailand Pushes

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Written by Our Correspondent

Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Xayaburi work goes on (photo credit: Suthep Kritsanavarin)

Despite reservations from Mekong Basin countries, construction continues

Over the opposition of environmental groups and the governments of other countries in the Mekong Basin, the Thai government is pushing ahead with the construction of the controversial Xayaburi Dam, environmentalists say.

Although the Cambodian and Vietnamese governments have expressed concerns about the dam and work was supposed to stop until further study has been completed, preliminary construction on the giant dam deep inside Laos, is continuing, according to International Rivers, which opposes the structure.

Large numbers of workers have been on the job for two years to build access roads and facilities for the project, said Pianporn Deetes, Thailand Campaign Coordinator for International Rivers. Ch. Karnchang, Thailand’s largest construction company, has the contract to build the dam for the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand, better known as EGAT, which has contracted to 95 percent of the energy from the dam.

“It doesn’t mean the dam can’t be stopped,” Deets told Asia Sentinel in a telephone interview. “We believe there are many channels that we can try to cancel the PPA (power purchase agreement).”

Thailand appears to be defying an agreement in early December by the Mekong River Commission Council, comprising water and environment ministers from Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, to seek international support to produce a more complete study of the dam, which is intended to produce 1,280 megawatts of power for the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand.

The Mekong supports the largest freshwater fishery in the world. The downstream governments are concerned that the Xayaburi and 10 other dams planned for the Mekong, which feeds a river basin populated by 60 million people, will do irreparable damage to the river’s habitat.

Environmentalists say anywhere between 23 and 100 fish species could be adversely affected.

The dam, 810 meters wide and 32 meters high, is opposed by 263 NGOs from 51 countries. Thousands of people in the region have urged that it be cancelled. Its primary objective is to generate, along with electricity, foreign exchange earnings for financing socio-economic development in Laos, a landlocked and obscure country of 6.8 million mostly poverty-stricken people. Laos is seeking to develop its way into prosperity through extensive investment in dams, mines and plantations, hoping for jobs, rising incomes and revenues to end poverty.

Wracked by incessant bombing and the dropping of tens of millions of antipersonnel mines by the Americans during the Vietnam War, Laos remains one of the world’s poorest countries, ranking 135th in the world. Nearly 41 percent of the population are under the age of 14. It is one of the few remaining one-party Communist countries left on the planet. Subsistence agriculture accounts for as much as 30 percent of gross domestic product, according to the CIA Factbook, and provides 80 percent of total employment.

Ten dams are already in operation across the country, generating 669 megawatts of power. Another eight are expected to be operational by this year, generating an additional 2,531 megawatts. Nineteen more are planned and 42 more are the subject of feasibility studies, almost all of them financed and developed by foreign interests expecting to turn a profit from electricity generation. Thailand is to import up to 7,000 megawatts by 2015. Vietnam will take another 3,000 megawatts by 2015 possibly rising to 5,000 megawatts by 2020 in accordance with an understanding reached in December 2006, according to a 2010 study titled Development in LAO PDR: the Food Security Paradox, produced for the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation and written by researcher David Fullbrook.

In 2010, the Mekong River Commission commissioned a strategic environmental assessment that recommended all decisions on Mekong mainstream dams be deferred for a period of at least 10 years while further studies can be conducted.

“We are afraid the fish migration could be destroyed,” Deets said. “There are 60 million people in the basin who depend for their livelihood on the river.”

The Thai government, she said in a prepared statement, “has ignored the agreements made last year among the four regional governments and the concerns expressed by Cambodia and Vietnam. With more than eight provinces in Thailand at risk from the Xayaburi Dam’s transboundary impacts, the state has also disregarded its duty to protect its own people from harm. It’s irresponsible to push forward with this dam, when the project’s impacts on Thailand have yet to be adequately studied.”

“The Mekong River Commission governments have not yet reached agreement on the Xayaburi Dam nor have they closed the prior consultation process,” the press release quoted Lam Thi Thu Suu, Director of the Centre for Social Research and Development in Vietnam, as saying. “By committing to purchase power from the dam and moving forward with the project’s implementation, EGAT and Ch. Karnchang are violating the trust and goodwill of Thailand’s neighbors. No construction on the Xayaburi Dam should proceed while further study is underway.”

Four Thai banks have already provided financial support for the dam including the state-owned Krung Thai Bank. When the Commission asked about the steps they took to examine the project’s environmental and social impacts, however, the banks were not able to provide detailed information.

“It’s astonishing to think that the financiers of this project have not taken the dam’s significant environmental and social impacts more seriously. Even a five minute search on the internet would reveal numerous media reports that highlight the concerns of the Thai people,” Deets said. “The recklessness of EGAT’s and the Thai companies’ pursuit of the project is likely to become a catastrophe for our country’s reputation. We call on the Thai government to immediately cancel the power purchase agreement and for Thai banks to withdraw financing from the Xayaburi Dam.”

An independent study has already concluded that the Xayaburi Dam’s electricity is not needed to meet Thailand’s demand for energy in the coming decades.

February 22, 2012

Off the air in Laos

Southeast Asia

Feb 22, 2012

Off the air in Laos

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By Beaumont Smith

VIENTIANE – Amid an unprecedented flurry of public debate and critique of government policies and actions, Lao authorities abruptly canceled a popular call-in radio program in late January without any public explanation.

The program, Talk of the News, ran for four consecutive years and encouraged the public to comment on issues of the day through often anonymous phone calls. The host, Ounkeo Souksavanh, an urbane ex-print journalist found himself uniquely enmeshed in the Lao population’s complaints and grievances.

Social justice, overt corruption and land grabs were daily fare on Talk of the News, a rarity in Laos’ authoritarian context. While many wondered when the boot would drop on the program, Lao listeners had grown accustomed to this point of light in the otherwise drab government-controlled media landscape.

Summoned by the director of Lao National Radio, Ounkeo was told that Minister of Information, Culture and Tourism Bosengkham Vongdara had issued the cancellation order. “I was shocked. I had no warning,” said Ounkeo. “Suddenly I was told by the head of national radio that he had been told to cancel my show. I think the order came from high up in the Ministry of Information and Culture,” Ounkeo said.

“I take my program from the daily news. I open the show by reading out segments from the Lao press and then open the lines for people to comment. Recently people have been saying strange things. When many nightclubs were re-opened, someone called to say, ‘well what do you expect – you know who owns them’ and then he hung up.” The rub was that they are likely owned by senior government officials.

“Later, someone called me and warned me not to give space to the public. But it’s an open line program, so people complain about many things; the Vietnamese taking land from veterans for a golf course, the loss of farming land on Don Chang [an island outside of Vientiane]. What can I do?”

Hopes that Laos may emulate Myanmar’s recent tentative moves to greater press freedom, or that the ruling Communist Party might begin to move towards more enlightened policies, have been snuffed out with the program’s closure. The cancelation and continued human-rights abuses indicate that democracy is still elusive.

“Who [demanded the closure] is not the issue here, but there is no legal reasons at all. There is no warning about the mistakes. This case reflects that the Lao government limits on people’s freedom expression [and is] violating the national constitution. It expresses that the power belongs to only the government. In fact that the constitution says power belong to people, by people and for people [sic]” one anonymous fan posted to the program’s website.

Many Lao used the anonymity of radio to bring into question what one long time Vientiane observer has called “patrimonial politics”, referring to the dominance of several influential families in Laos’ politics and economy.

Some suggest the last straw may have been a live-to-air interview with a delegation of farmers from the Boloven plateau, a well-known coffee growing region in the south. They insisted that a Vietnamese coffee company had been given permission to plant 150 hectares of coffee.

Over time, however, the area had expanded into 1,000 hectares. The farmers alleged the district governor had taken bribes from the company to look the other way, and that he had recently been seen driving a new luxury car, which they insinuated was part of his pay-off.

That particular program attracted a huge audience and might have contributed to the subsequent deluge of the National Assembly’s hot-line with similar land-grabbing complaints.

Before the program’s airing, Ounkeo had already achieved a degree of Robin Hood-like fame for giving voice to poor versus rich social justice issues. For instance, he took his microphone into the city’s jail to interview a woman wrongly accused of arson following a neighborhood feud with a wealthy Lao family. The woman was subsequently released.

The show’s cancelation caused unprecedented commentary among Laos’ online community. Members of Lao Links, a Lao language online bulletin board, expressed dismay and regret that “society won’t be able to listen to this program anymore because it is as same as a big microphone to speak out about social problems”, one online contributor wrote.

“It’s the hot issue on Lao Links right now,” engineer Khantone Soumiphone said. “We are all wondering why it happened and we are very concerned. It was the only source of interesting news and discussion about important development issues … The government says it is pro-development but closes the only program that discusses the results. It doesn’t make sense.”

After the program’s closure, Ounkeo held discussions with European Union charge d’affaires Michel Goffin, who apparently told him that the issue of press freedom would be raised at the forthcoming 9th Asia-Europe Summit (ASEM) to be held in Vientiane in November. Goffin did not answer this correspondent’s request for confirmation that he made the comment.

Ironically, some of the complaints raised on Ounkeo’s radio show were about the agricultural land on Don Chang. A luxury hotel is scheduled to be constructed in time for the ASEM meeting on land that previously provided much of Vientiane’s fresh produce.

Meanwhile, less than a week after the program’s cancelation, the front page headline in Laos English language daily newspaper, Vientiane Times, announced that the party was poised to “bolster propaganda at grassroots level”.

The Ministry of Information and Culture’s Propaganda and Training Board is “to accelerate the establishment of mobile propaganda teams … to penetrate grassroots communities”. The new propaganda drive, some suggest, is a government reaction to the open public hostility to its policies and actions often aired on Ounkeo’s program.

Those grievances are apparently mounting. It is an open secret that many Lao provinces still function as modern-day fiefdoms for Lao political leaders to extract money and privilege. “Gate keeping, influence peddling and rent seeking are national sports disguised as development,” said agro-economist Jeff Casey from Bangkok.

While Laos’ gross domestic product has grown in recent years, so too has the national Gini coefficient, a statistical measure of economic inequality. Laos remains one of the world’s poorest countries and mushrooming mansions owned by government officials and the sheer number of new luxury cars on Vientiane’s roads have raised uncomfortable questions about who are the real beneficiaries of the communist leadership’s development agenda.

Some Lao residents believe that the party is rattled by the spate of demonstrations against official abuse in neighboring Vietnam and the rise in local complaints lodged via the National Assembly’s hot-line. Most of those complaints have focused on a lack of government transparency, particularly on land issues, and systemic corruption that Ounkeo’s program not so subtly suggested taints all levels of government.

Beaumont Smith is a freelance journalist.

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved.

February 22, 2012

Drugs on the menu for Aussie tourists in Laos

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19:00 AEDT Tue Feb 21 2012

By Will Jackson, ninemsn

When going out for a night on the town in Laos, on the menu for the typical Australian tourist will be magic mushrooms, cannabis and even opium.

The pubs literally have menus listing all those drugs — and even “disco buckets” containing some of each.

When 24-year-old Nathan, from Newcastle, went to Laos for a few days during a tour of South-East Asia last November he thought things would be pretty loose.

But even he was shocked at the reality of the place.

“Stuff gets out of control,” he told ninemsn. “It gets crazy.”

Nathan took a picture of the drugs menu at the first nightspot he visited, a pub on the riverside in Vang Vieng.

A bag of “weed”, mushrooms or opium — frequently processed to produce heroin — was about 100,000 Laotian kip ($12) while a litre bottle of locally-produced “whisky” was about $2.

He said he did not try the opium but he and his friends had a bit of everything else.

“I was worried about the police but I didn’t see anyone get busted,” he said.

“The people at the bars make it seem normal.”

The Wikitravel website says while drugs are technically illegal in Laos, in towns like Vang Vieng some are freely available in many bars and restaurants.

However, the site advises travellers not to buy drugs off the street or risk being taken to a police station and forced to pay a “fine” of about $450.

Laos has featured prominently in local headlines this year after the deaths there of three young Australians.

Lee Hudswell, 22, of Sydney, and Daniel Eimutis, 19, of Melbourne, died while “tubing” in a river near Vang Vieng and 22-year-old Alexander Lee, from Melbourne, was mysteriously found dead in a hotel room in the village of Nongkio along with his Dutch girlfriend.

A young woman, Annika Morris, 19, from Melbourne, passed out and became extremely ill while after drinking a shot of whisky while tubing.

There is no suggestion any had taken illegal drugs.

But Nathan went tubing too and said everything that was available in the pubs was also available at the bars that lined the river.

“I was with a group of people, and we just lost them,” he said.

“It was just all the alcohol, mixed with drugs and floating down the river and all these jumps and slides down the side of the river.”

He said he could easily see how “stuff goes wrong over there”.

“I’m surprised it doesn’t happen to more people.”

Queensland University emeritus professor Martin Stuart-Fox, an expert on South-East Asian history, said the situation in Laos was “the sixties all over again” when “everything” was openly available.

“In ’63 Laos had the largest legal opium den in the world in a disused theatre and the best cubicles were on stage,” he said.

“In the markets in the sixties you could see these little old women who had a pile of tobacco on one side and an equally large pile of marijuana on the other.”

He said the western tourists were there back then too — often young men in Kombis who had driven from Europe via Afghanistan or India for the hash.

But everything changed in 1975 after the Laotian Civil War when the Pathet Lao — the Laotian equivalent of Vietnam’s Viet Cong — came to power.

“They rounded up all the local addicts and prostitutes and put them on two islands in the Nam Ngum reservoir to go cold turkey,” Professor Stuart-Fox said.

“For a while all this was cleaned up, but then in the mid-1980s Laos opened up to foreign investment and little by little these practices returned. Nightclubs opened and the tourists came back.

“By about 2000 you could get women and drugs fairly easily in Laos and there was a lot of corruption.

“Officially, the communist regime claims to try and control the drugs but in fact because of the corruption, these places with the menus just pay off the officials.

“You can get drugs pretty well anywhere.”

Professor Stuart-Fox said there had always been drugs in Laos because they were part of the indigenous culture.

“Opium is freely available because it’s always been used for medicinal purposes, and marijuana is also available because it’s used in medicinal soups,” he said.

“The drugs that are really nasty now are the manufactured drugs like amphetamines.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Foreign Affairs said Australians visiting Laos should to take special note of travel advice.

“While Laos is not an inherently dangerous country (Australians are advised to exercise normal safety precautions) there are very serious legal and health risks associated with taking drugs there,” the spokesperson said.

“As anywhere, risks associated with water-based and other potentially dangerous activities, like tubing, are magnified further if combined with alcohol or drug taking.”

Nathan said he had no regrets about his time in Laos and wanted to go back.

“I don’t regret it because nothing really happened to us, but I regret seeing these articles in the news and seeing how uncontrollable it is,” he said.

“You do have a great time, everyone there’s having a blast but it’s the kind of thing your parents wouldn’t want you doing.”

To see DFAT’s travel advice for Laos click go to:

©ninemsn 2012
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February 17, 2012

Who are the Hmong? Perennial outsiders, they have mastered the art of survival

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This article was published on 02.16.12.

Hmong actor Bee Vang and Clint Eastwood in the 2008 movie Gran Torino.
Related stories this week:
The amazing life of Vang Pao
He was a sometimes ruthless warlord and an opium runner, but Gen. Vang Pao was also America’s great friend in war and a hero to his people.

There are as many as 350,000 Hmong (the “h” is silent) living in the United States today. At first Hmong refugees settled in the Central Valley of California. Quickly, however, colonies sprouted in Montana. Then they moved to Minnesota; today the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area has the largest concentration of Hmong in the United States. The tendency to migrate is in keeping with their historic practices in Laos, some say.

The Hmong people are traced back originally to Mongolia. About 2,000 years ago they migrated to the southwest of China. There are still sizable Hmong populations there today—along with other “national minorities,” as the Chinese call them. A recent census in Vietnam revealed that more than a million Hmong live there—almost all in the north.

The Hmong who live in the United States today mostly resided in Laos three generations ago. But they are not Lao. Lao people speak a language similar to Thai and are devoutly Buddhist. Not so the Hmong. Lao surnames tend to be long—like Souphanavong. Hmong names are usually one syllable, like Pao, Thau or Xiong. The Lao people dominate the lowland plains of Laos and the cities along the Mekong. The Hmong lived in remote highlands. Rice cultivation prevails in the lowlands but not in the Hmong highlands.

Hmong New Year Festival 2011 in Chico. The 2010 census estimates more than 4,300 Hmong are living in Butte County.


(Most of what I have written about the Hmong people can be ascribed to the Mien, who are ethnically close to the Hmong. The Mien were also involved in the secret war and also migrated to the United States—though in much smaller numbers than the Hmong.)

The Hmong language is akin to Chinese, though Chinese and Hmong speakers cannot begin to understand each other. The Chinese forbade the Hmong, under penalty of death, from employing the Chinese ideographic writing system.

The Hmong were without a written language until a Romanized alphabet was created in the early 1950s by foreign missionaries. It remains today as the only written language for Hmong speech.

The Hmong were regarded as alien by the ruling class of China. They were not schooled in Confucianism and so were denied access to the privileged literati. Further, Hmong were often unfamiliar with Buddhism. They were (and often still are) fundamentally animists living in a world of good and evil spirits.

Traditional Hmong spirituality centers on shamans, healing practitioners, men or women, chosen by the spirits to act as intermediaries between the spiritual and physical worlds. The ritual killing of chickens by the shaman in Clint Eastwood’s 2008 movie Gran Torino got that approximately correct, say Hmong I have consulted.

But Eastwood’s portrayal of the Hmong as passive folk in need of rescue by heroic Caucasians did not set well with many Hmong. As Bee Vang, the Hmong lead in the film, put it in a recent interview, “I was supposed to be clueless and have no self-respect in order for the white elder man to achieve his savior role.”

It was, he added, “like making a deal with the devil. To the extent that I did a good job, I reinforced that image of effeminate Asian guys who are wimps, geeks and can’t advocate for themselves.”

As shunned outsiders in China (and later in Laos), Hmong often resorted to illicit activities—drug trafficking, for example. That of course further marginalized them.

The more marginalized the Hmong became in China, the more they were inclined to migrate farther south. As Anne Fadiman wrote in her brilliant 1997 account of a Hmong family struggling with intercultural problems in Merced, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: “Over and over again, the Hmong have responded to persecution and to pressures to assimilate by either fighting or migrating—a pattern that has been repeated so many times, in so many different eras and places, that it begins to seem almost a genetic trait, as inevitable in its recurrence as their straight hair or their short, sturdy stature.”

And that brought many Hmong to the borderlands of China and Laos—as well as Thailand, Burma and Vietnam—over the last two centuries. And, finally, in the last few decades, to a grand and trying diaspora to Canada, France, Australia, Argentina and French Guiana. And finally to Chico, Calif. Do they deserve our attention and admiration? Yes, they do.

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