Lower Mekong: Growing Connectivity Demands Better Cross-border Coordination

By Amy Killian

Flags promoting the Mekong River Commission, an intergovernmental agency to promote sustainable, collaborative management of the Mekong River. Source: Wikimedia, used under a creative commons license.

Flags promoting the Mekong River Commission, an intergovernmental agency to promote sustainable, collaborative management of the Mekong River. Source: Wikimedia, used under a creative commons license.

The countries of mainland Southeast Asia—Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam—are geographically interconnected and bound to each other by a set of cross-border issues. But the Lao government’s decision in July to proceed with the Don Sahong dam, despite warnings from environmental groups, underscores shortcomings in the Lower Mekong region’s ability to collaborate on such issues.

In the future, increased connectivity in mainland Southeast Asia will ease labor challenges, draw foreign direct investment to less developed countries, facilitate travel and tourism, and boost opportunities for regional businesses. Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam recently initiated a scheme to provide workers vocational training certificates that will be recognizable for employment in all three nations. Initiatives like this are a positive step toward economic integration in the Lower Mekong region.

Nevertheless, while the region becomes increasingly interconnected, there seems to be a lack of ability and will among governments in the five Lower Mekong countries to collaborate when it comes to the most urgent transnational issues.

Decisions such as one to proceed with the Don Sahong dam undermine efforts toward effective regional connectivity. The trend is not new; the Lao and Thai governments in 2012 broke ground on the equally controversial Xayaburi dam, despite Cambodia and Vietnam’s objections to the project on the grounds that it would disrupt their water supply. The 1995 Mekong Agreement, a treaty signed by Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam, stipulates that participating governments must seek prior consultation for projects on the Mekong River. But authorities in Laos and Thailand, whose state-owned energy authority will purchase 95 percent of electricity produced by the Xayaburi dam, have not sought  agreement with their neighbors.

Trans-boundary health issues also demand concerted attention from governments in the region. For example, the number of reported cases of dengue fever in 2012 in both Laos and Thailand reached unprecedented levels. In July, the Cambodian health ministry announced its 14th case of avian flu this year, the highest number of cases in the country to date. Given that Cambodia, Myanmar, and Laos have limited capacity to handle major outbreaks of communicable diseases, coordination between them on research, awareness, and prevention campaigns, and preparedness for potential pandemics, is not only smart, but necessary.

As the Lower Mekong region integrates, challenges that are trans-boundary in nature will only multiply and become more daunting for any single government to tackle on its own. Initiatives such as the Lower Mekong Initiative, a partnership between the United States and the five Lower Mekong states to build capacity and promote regional integration, are important steps. But in the long run, mainland Southeast Asian countries will eventually need to take their own initiatives and devote more political and financial resources to address a host of fast-growing cross-border issues.

With Myanmar’s political and economic opening, mainland Southeast Asia finally has an opportunity to develop to its full potential and become a more prosperous region. In an increasingly interconnected community, collaboration will be better than going it alone.

Ms. Amy Killian is a researcher with the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at CSIS. Follow the Chair on twitter @SoutheastAsiaDC.

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