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On Mekong Commission, a Stark Absence of Two Countries

Cambodian fishermen move their fishing net from the Mekong River as they catch fish on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.
Cambodian fishermen move their fishing net from the Mekong River as they catch fish on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.

Cambodia is a member of the Mekong River Commission, alongside Laos, Thailand and Vietnam.

But there are two countries that also have great influence over the Mekong—Burma and China—who remain mere partners in official discussions over the use the river.

The relationship between the commission, Burma and China has come into sharp relief in recent months, as plans for the development of hydroelectric dams move forward, and experts say diplomacy is only going to get trickier.

The Mekong River Commission was made in 1996, a year after the inception of the 1995 Mekong Agreement, which requires member countries to consult with each other on projects that concern the river.

But both Burma and China have remained “dialogue partners,” not full members, ever since.

“China want to develop its dams, so if it joins the MRC at this stage, the agreement will require that it go through a consultation process,” said Watt Botkosal, deputy secretary-general for the Cambodian Mekong Committee.

Such a process could scupper dam projects, or put them on hold, as with Laos’s bid to put a dam across the river in Xayaburi province. It backed down from the plan after opposition from the other MRC countries, as well as environmental groups.

Burma, on the other hand, has very little interest in the Mekong, which affects only 1 percent of its overall territory, so it has little incentive to join the MRC, said Pech Sokhem, chairman of the Mekong Program on Water, Environment and Resilience.

“And that area was originally occupied by the country’s rebels,” he said.

But even though both countries have very different reasons for avoiding the commission, Pou Sothirak, a researcher at the Institute for Southeast Asian Studies said their membership could ensure stability and development in the Mekong River Basin.

“If they join, it will be very beneficial in that the regional cooperation is improved,” he said. “That means all Mekong-related affairs will be consulted, exchanged and supported by each other before an action is made.”

Burmese officials could not be reached for comment on the MRC.

However, Lu Xing, who studies the Mekong region at Yunnan University in China, said it is not necessary for China to join the MRC because it is already a member of the Greater Mekong Subregion forum.

The GMS was established in 1992 as an economic cooperation for the countries that share the Mekong. “Why do you choose another organization focusing on the MRC?” he said.

Pech Sokhem said China had plans for 15 hydropower dams when the MRC was established, and that’s the real reason it did not join. “So it just said, ‘You just negotiate among yourselves downstream first, and I’ll consider joining at an appropriate time,’” he said.

Larry Harrington, research director for the Challenge Program on Water and Food, said now would be a good time for China to join the commission now that it is seen as an ascendant world power.

“China is turning into a world leader, and as a world leader, it will be providing leadership in ethical and moral issues, as well as technical, scientific and political issues,” he said.

There are other reasons China may want to joint now as well.

“It’s probably a good opportunity for China now to show it is a good big brother, as it is almost done with all its dam construction,” Pech Sokhem said.