Mekong is not a canal

Mekong is not a canal

The attempt by the Chinese company CCCC Second Harbour Consultants to normalise its plans to blast a corridor down Thailand's Mekong River channels needs urgent comment from the government. Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha promised earlier this year to let the public know when or if he approves this disastrous attack on the Thai environment. But the Chinese firm last week indicated Gen Prayut's approval is already a given. The prime minister should dispute this.

The immediate controversy in a nutshell is simple enough. China, all the way up to the central government in Beijing, wants a Mekong channel cleared for its river ships of up to 500 tonnes. Thailand, all the way up to the central government in Bangkok, has been wary of contesting China's plan. This is despite the fact the Thai Mekong littoral along nearly 100km of scenic and economic importance is at immediate risk from the Chinese dynamiters.

China and its disappointing apologists on the Mekong River Commission (MRC) have conducted one of the greatest misleading propaganda campaigns to soft-sell this destruction.

TNT "will only be used when necessary", said a CCCC Second Harbour Consultants public relations expert at a Chiang Rai "public hearing" last week. And "only some islets will be removed" by the blasting.

Another claim is that the company, ever solicitous towards the river's fish, will not blow up shoals and islets during fish-breeding season. The other, conservationists' way of saying the same thing is that current fish shelters, fishing grounds and the scenic Chiang Rai riverfront will be destroyed if Gen Prayut agrees -- or even, if statements at the public hearing are correct, if he does not.

China is officially concerned that current Mekong depths during the annual dry season permit river boats of no more than 250 tonnes.

To properly expand trade with Laos, Myanmar and Thailand, Beijing claims it needs a waterway able to handle river freighters twice as large, to travel from China to Luang Prabang. That is far downriver from Chiang Rai, and well inside Lao territory. From China's view, all countries concerned agreed to this 10 years ago.

The Thai public has never been consulted. At last week's meeting, Chiang Rai governor Narongsak Osottanakorn took the side of the public. He encouraged all Thais to give their opinions. Mr Narongsak also called on the ministries of Foreign Affairs and Transport to become more active on the issue.

Any blasting of the Mekong is irreversible. Up to now, and partly because of Gen Prayut's promise to speak up, the public response in general has been muted. Local conservation groups around Chiang Rai have protested vociferously.

However, since this dispute involves both the environment and actual loss of Thai territory to an altered river course, much more consultation with the public is necessary.

The government, of course, wishes both to expand trade and to play nicely with China. It will not be easy to say "no" to Beijing on this issue, although that is the only obvious answer. But conservation concerns and the livelihood of Thais along the river must come first.

China's mistreatment of the Mekong, and its control of upstream water supplies, already shows the problem. Treating the mother of rivers like an international canal is no way to conserve and protect the environment, fishing and Thai people's traditional lifestyle.

The prime minister and every member of the cabinet concerned must attend to this pressing issue.

It is obvious from last week's meeting that China is trying to manipulate Thai opinion on the matter, and it is vital the government support all efforts to counter the Chinese claims that blasting the Mekong is a proper treatment of the great waterway.


Bangkok Post editorial column

These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.

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