Mekong People’s Forum pushed to pave way for wider participation in Mekong decision making

Over a hundred representatives of the Mekong residents and communities in eight provinces as well as civil networks and noted academics have gathered this week to push for a set-up of the so-called Mekong People’s Forum, aimed to be a new policy making platform for civil society to empower their participation at a high level of decision making for development projects in the Mekong Basin, the move which has won praises by international observers

Over a hundred participants from various sectors, which have been working on development issues in the Mekong Basin, attended the two-day seminar held in Chiang Rai’ Chiang Khong district, where has been one of the locations which have long suffered from development projects in the Mekong River.

Apart from sharing views and updates on the situations in their areas, the participants agreed to push for the set-up of the new Mekong People’s Forum, aimed to provide a shared platform where they can work collectively in an attempt to push forward the issues and policy recommendations to the decision-making level, hopefully that this could help shape the course of the development in the Mekong Basin better than it is.

Dr. Chayan Vaddhanaphuti, Director of the Regional Center for Social Science and Sustainable Development at Chiang Mai University, who has been following up the Mekong issues academically for years, said several Mekong communities have been working independently on protecting the mighty river from any harms derived from unsound development for many years.

However, the increasing challenge they are facing at the moment is beyond their capacity as it generally involves mega projects initiated either on the mainstream river itself or its tributaries by the governments or “superpower” like China, adding new players and frameworks like the LMC (Lancang-Mekong Cooperation) into the already complex power structure and struggle in the region.

Following such the complexity, local communities and residents would never be able to protest against unsound development projects if their voices were not collective and strong enough, Dr. Chayan said, adding there has hardly been a platform where Mekong communities and residents can concretely participate.

“The forum should be a new work approach that can facilitate the communities or residents to deal with those in power; be they the governments, regional institutions, or even superpower like China or the United States, all have critical roles in development in the region,” said Dr. Chayan.

Although the work structure of the new forum has not yet been concluded, the participants have firmly agreed to push for the institutionalization of the forum. Dr. Chayan himself suggested that there needed no solid work structure, but networks and coordination could play a critical role in institutionalizing this new platform.

With the back-up of renown academics working on sustainable development in the Mekong Basin, who have recently grouped together under the Academic Network for the Mekong Basin, Dr. Chayan believed this could reinforce the people’s power to “decolonize” the basin from capitalism and liberalism, which tend to favor development and natural resources exploitation at the costs of the environment and livelihoods.

He himself viewed the problem as not being just environmental or social, but political.

Associate Professor Dr. Kanokwan Manorom, also Director of the Mekong Sub-Region Social Research Center at Ubon Ratchathani University, said the current consultation platform (PNPCA: The Procedures for Notification, Prior Consultation and Agreement) provided by the Mekong River Commission is problematic, although it sounds effective in theory.

This is because it’s not legally binding in nature, thus not being able to help settle the issues or views of opposing sides, she pointed.

Under the PNPCA, some groups of people are often excluded from “meaningful” participation due to the complexity and technicality of the mechanism, the professor further pointed. Such the complexity and vagueness of the mechanism, she added, also allows room for interpretation and often it’s interpreted to be at advantage of developers.

Other frameworks including China’s LMC, meanwhile, are not equal in power represented in the first place as they are initiated by powerful states, Dr. Kanokwan said.

So, there is a need for a new space where ordinary people can really have their voices heard and meaningful participation, she concluded.

“The forum is people’s institution. It’s not a building or an office , but a space where people can come together to help one another develop management of the shared resources, which should not be a monopoly of any organisations or governments (as it is at the moment).

“It’s a space where a multi discipline of knowledge is shared to help develop sustainable development for the Mekong basin_and in turn reduce the monopoly,” said Dr. Kanokwan.

The participants brainstorm to help shape the forum.
Credit: Transborder News

Public participation and Democracy

Some international observers from the embassies such as the Australian Embassy in Thailand and the U.S. Embassy in Thailand, meanwhile, have praised the attempt, saying such the civil society’s role is important in the Mekong development and it is part of democracy.

Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy, Michael G. Heath, said the United States as a democratic country has long believed that the role of civil society is very important in decision-making processes. So, when the civil society has organized this event with people coming together from various countries and groups, the first time in this case, it is an important development.

As individual organisations or small communities, people may feel that their voices may not be heard, but when coming together_from Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai to the Northeast, with collaboration with other communities in other Mekong countries, communities then get one and louder voices, thus more attention, Mr. Heath said.

Although the decisions would be made by governments and its’ not a role of international community outside the region, the US, he said, shares the same interest with the Thai government in incorporating the views of civil society in the decision-making processes.

The US, he added, can help provide information such as scientific data so that the processes can be transparent as much as possible, and people can get the same and timely data as the government to help in the decision-making.

First Secretary (Political and Economic Section) at the Australian Embassy in Thailand, David Braun, said the roles of local communities and such the forum are clearly important in water management in the Mekong Basin. The forum, he remarked, can help make recommendations to accompany the government’s work in negotiations.

The voices of local communities, he said, are usually unheard by international community. If the forum can help push these through constructively, that would be helpful in future negotiations, he said.

Mr. Braun viewed that the region lacks the balance between economic development and the environment and sustainable development is as such important.

The challenge is how to manage water for ecological preservation, under which transboundary impacts as well as the holistic picture should be taken into account when development projects are proposed. Concerned countries, therefore, should have a chance to speak out, and local communities or the forum like this should be coordinated, he suggested.

A leader of Raksa Chiang Khong group, Niwat Roykaew himself, said locals have different views about the river from authorities. While the locals like him see the river as their mother who gives livelihoods to the people, authorities tend to view the river as the resource subject to development and benefits.

Such the rough view, Mr. Niwat said, bars people from seeing the river as a living organism, and that’s the reason why a number of dam projects are pushed without delicate consideration and could jeopardise the river’s ecosystem.

The locals, he said, have been fighting to protect the river for over 20 years through a series of protests and campaigns, to no avail. With recent dialogues with Chinese developers of Pak Bang Dam, the third project planned on the Lower Section, they have started to view dialogues as the hopeful means to reach agreements amid differences of views.

The forum, he said, could act as the platform to help represent collective voices and views of the locals when the official mechanisms like the MRC’s consultation processes could not, but overshadow the efforts.

“It’s the time, and I think we have just laid the foundation of the new institution, Mekong People’s Forum, already,” said Mr. Niwat, referring to the gathering at the seminar, where collective voices were presented in support of the forum’s establishment.

Mr. Niwat just hoped that the forum would expand its work in the future to include other local partners in other Mekong countries so people’s power in the whole region can be strengthened.

Tosapol Wongwan, Assistant to Secretary General of the Office of the National Water Resources, said his office is now attempting to support such the participation in localities such as setting up sub committees at a provincial level. These committees would include more of concerned sectors for thorough consideration and decision-making, he said, citing the grouping of the forum is important to sustainable development in the Basin.

The Mekong sneaking through mountainous areas in Laos, Xayaburi.
Photo: Sayan Chuenudomsavad