Tag Archives: Laos

Damming The Mekong

While Myanmar appears to be pressing ahead with dam construction for hydropower plants in the face of environmental concerns, Laos is being more cautious. Or at least giving the appearance of being so. Viraphonh Viravong, the country’s deputy minister for energy and mines, tells the state-run Vientiane Times that Laos will not start building its controversial Xayaburi dam on the Mekong river until it has resolved all concerns about potential impacts.

The measure of Viraphonh’s words, and the environmental impact review being conducted by two sets of international consultants, Poyry from Finland and Companie Nationale du Rhone from France, will be being watched closely by China’s giant state-owned dam builder Sinohydro which is involved in at least eight of 25 dam-building projects in Laos for which Chinese firms are contractors, though Xayaburi is not one of them. Other Chinese companies with a similar interest include China International Water and Electric, China Southern Power Grid, Datang and Gezhouba.

Viraphonh said there are two issues with what at 1,260 MW would be Laos’s  largest hydropower plant. They are fish migration and sediment flow, both, according to environmentalists, critical to sustaining the Mekong’s ecosystem. Four dams exist in the narrow gorges of the Upper Mekong in China but until now there have been none on the slower moving lower reaches of the river. China’s damning has made downstream hydropower plants more economically feasible by smoothing out the seasonal flows of the Mekong.

A report for the intergovernmental Mekong River Commission published in October 2010 said that given the far reaching potential effects on the ecosystem, any construction should be delayed for 10 years to give time to plan for more sustainable hydropower development. However, a multi-billion dollar contract to build Xayaburi was signed in April with Ch. Karnchang, one of Thailand’s leading construction companies. Preliminary work has started regardless of deputy ministerial statements.

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Laos Extradites Suspected Mekong Murders Mastermind

Naw Kham (C), head of an armed drug gang, is seen during a transferring at Laos' Vientiane Wattay International airport, May 10, 2012. Naw Kham, a drug lord suspected of masterminding the murder of 13 Chinese sailors on the Mekong River last year was transferred to Chinese police here on Thursday. (Xinhua/Thanakone)Laos has handed over to Chinese police a drug lord suspected of masterminding the execution-like killing of 13 Chinese seamen last October on the Mekong River. Naw Kham, seen, right, in transit at Vientiane airport, is a Burmese in his 40s and said to lead a heavily armed drugs trafficking gang. He was arrested on April 25, assumedly in Laos, and has been flown to Beijing.

Along with Myanmar and Thailand, China and Laos have been conducting joint armed police patrols along the often lawless upper reaches of the Mekong since last December. The area is part of the Golden Triangle, long notorious as a stronghold of Shan and Wu drug lords. They have increasingly attacked shipping on the river that refuses to pay protection money, seizing the vessels to carry amphetamines and other drugs downriver to Thailand, the region’s largest market for amphetamines, according to the UNODC. Naw Kham’s gang is believed by Chinese authorities to have been involved in 28 such attacks on Chinese freighters, some allegedly with the compliance of renegade Thai soldiers from an anti-narcotics unit.

Chinese vessels have been particularly subject to such attacks as they dominate shipping on the river, an important trade conduit between Yunnan and Southeast Asia. The four-country patrols, initiated last December after shipping on the Mekong had become too dangerous for most vessels to undertake, are lead by Chinese law-enforcement authorities. They have provided Beijing with an opportunity to play a greater security role along a regionally strategic waterway.

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Patrolling The Speed Trade Along The Mekong

Joint armed police patrols along the upper reaches of the Mekong where it passes between China, Myanmar, Laos and Thailand are to start in mid-December. Agreement between the four countries to patrol the waters was reached at the end of October following the execution-like killing of 13 Chinese seamen earlier that month in attacks on their two freighters for which nine Thai soldiers were eventually arrested. (They have pleaded not guilty to charges of murder, though earlier reports quoted Thai authorities as saying the soldiers had admitted the killings.)

While the area is part of the Golden Triangle, long notorious as the stronghold of the Shan and Wu drug lords who control the opium trade, it is now a center for amphetamine production, a more marketable drug that is both cheaper and easier to produce than opium and heroin. Thailand is the region’s largest market for amphetamines, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), a view reflected in the fast rising volumes of seizures of the drug in China, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand, 133 million pills last year up from 32 million in 2008.

For some time there have been reports of vessels on the river that refuse to pay protection money being seized by gangs and used to ship amphetamines and other drugs. The two vessels attacked in October were found with large supplies of pills on board. Units of the Thai army are reported to be complicit in these protections of the amphetamine trade, to which, as the UNODC map shows, the Mekong provides a backbone.

Greater Mekong Subregion: Primary Metaampthetamine Trafficking Routes

Chinese vessels have frequently been the subject of these attacks as they dominate shipping on the river, an important trade conduit between Yunnan and Southeast Asia. According to Xinhua, 116 of the 130 ships involved in international shipping on the Mekong are operated by Chinese companies. All maritime trade along the river has been suspended since the early October attacks.

However, the illicit drugs trade operates on both sides of the river, with UNODC saying that the greatest number of illicit amphetamine manufacturing labs discovered and shut down in the region, 458 in 2009, were in China. Along with Myanmar, China is the largest producer of illicit amphetamines in the region. In 2010, UNODC says, 378 illicit labs were detected in China, compared to 391 in 2009 and 244 in 2008. Manufacturing of amphetamines appears to have shifted to Yunnan from Guangdong and Fujian, following the crackdown there since 2006. That crackdown is now moving west.

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