Thailand needs to play a more proactive role in forging Mekong cooperation

SUNDAY, MARCH 03, 2024

The Mekong River Commission (MRC), created by an agreement signed in 1995 by four lower riparian countries of the Mekong River Basin – Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam — will commemorate its 30th anniversary next year.

Its current vision is to be “a world-class, financially secure, international river basin organisation serving the Mekong countries”. Its mission is to “promote and coordinate sustainable management and development of water and related resources for the mutual benefits of the lower Mekong countries and the people's well-being”.

So far, it has attempted to fulfil the indicated aspirations with varying results. On the positive side it provided a legally binding regime for the management of the river, without which the situation could have been worse with a free-for-all “tragedy of the commons” scenario. However, the signed agreement is rather weak in its dispute resolution provisions and mechanisms for ensuring compliance, which is generally left to be negotiated among the signatory parties. Consequently it still falls short of its potential, especially in terms of keeping the river ecosystem in proper balance between competing interests and maintaining the well-being of the millions of people living in the basin, many whose livelihoods depend on having a healthy riverine environment.

Risks need urgent redressal

Recent reports, including from the MRC, have expressed alarm about the risks posed that need to be addressed urgently to avoid worsening conditions in the future resulting from the impact of hydropower dams built on the river system. There are also other emerging threats like climate change that causes variations in rainfall and stream-sediment flow patterns, which affect fisheries and crop production. There is an immediate need to revitalise the river management regime to restore the natural balance necessary to rehabilitate the affected livelihoods, especially important for local riparian communities, the supposed ultimate beneficiaries of the MRC’s activities.

Moreover, there is the increasingly intensive geo-political rivalry among major powers in the Mekong Sub-region as evident in the numerous existing cooperation frameworks which can result in both positive and negative outcomes. Amidst these evolving dynamics, the MRC also faces some structural limitations.

First, the organisation has mostly depended on external funding to keep it afloat. The fact sheet for the MRC Strategic Plan 2021-2025 indicated that the MRC member countries can only contribute 40% of the total budget of US$60 million needed for its implementation while the remaining 60% is to be shouldered by external partners. Meanwhile, MRC has institutionalised a process whereby it would increase its ownership and share of financial contributions from the four riparian countries for its operations aiming to reach full self-reliance by 2030. It remains a challenge for the four member countries to make substantial increases in their contributions over the next six years to reach the stated goal.

Second, the same four countries have had full membership of the organisation for almost three decades. Although both China and Myanmar, as also Mekong riparian countries, participate in MRC activities they are only dialogue partners and do not necessarily accept or align with its governance mechanisms nor contribute to its operational budget. It is noteworthy that while Myanmar has been a member of many recently established Mekong Sub-regional initiatives, it hasn’t joined the MRC. The limited membership of the MRC is a major weakness, as no single integrated river basin management system can be effectively realised without the full and equal participation of all the riparian countries.

China’s alternative path

Moreover, China as the uppermost riparian country has also never joined the MRC. Instead, in 2015 it launched its own Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) framework, based on an original Thai initiative, comprising all six riparian countries. The section of the Mekong River flowing in China is called the Lancang. To date, the LMC has already held four biennial summits since 2016. Meanwhile, the MRC has managed to hold only four summits since 2010 as the frequency is quadrennial. At this rate, the LMC will soon overtake the MRC unless the latter decides to increase the frequency of its own summit meetings to match the LMC.

While the MRC Secretariat, in 2019, signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the Beijing-based LMC Water Center to undertake joint cooperative activities, the LMC has also set up similar parallel river water cooperation mechanisms of its own, which have overshadowed the MRC’s activities.

A Vietnamese regional analyst observed that the “LMC has since outpaced other Mekong sub-regional platforms in terms of institution-building, scope of cooperation and project financing. Its institutional architecture spans from leaders to ministers, senior officials and working groups”.

Mekong and ASEAN

A senior Lao government official, whose country is chairing the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 2024, recently indicated that Laos would consider including Mekong basin-related issues on the ASEAN agenda this year if the concerned Mekong countries wish to do so. He further added that there were now many overlapping cooperation frameworks in the Mekong Sub-region which are worth pursuing only if they produce tangible outcomes and benefits to the Mekong peoples, countries and partners.

It is worth noting that ASEAN forged cooperation with the MRC upon signing an MOU in March 2010 and more recently under the rubric of ASEAN-MRC Water Security Dialogue, which held its first activity in 2021 and plans to organise the second one this year.

Another clear sign of closer Mekong-ASEAN cooperation is the inauguration of electricity transmission generated by hydropower from Laos to Singapore via Thailand and Malaysia which began in June 2022, exemplifying Mekong-ASEAN energy connectivity.

In fact, ASEAN leaders themselves have over a decade ago “recognised the importance of preserving, managing and sustaining use of water resources. They have called on ASEAN member states to continue effectively implementing the ASEAN Strategic Action Plan on Water Resources Management, including assessing impacts that economic development has on the environment and people’s livelihoods in major river basins including the Lower Mekong Basin”.

Finally, a recent interesting development is the signing of an MOU between Indonesia and the MRC with the “aim to enhance the exchange of views, experiences and best practices in addressing water-related challenges and promoting sustainable water resource management”. Indonesia is the first non-Mekong riparian country within ASEAN to do so, thereby fostering closer ASEAN-Mekong engagement.

Huge challenges for next Thai CEO

Since 2016, the MRC Secretariat located in Vientiane had been headed by a CEO from one of the member states on an alphabetical rotation basis. The current CEO is a Laotian whose tenure ends early next year. It is now Thailand’s turn to field the next and first-ever Thai candidate for the position for the period 2025-2027.

Thailand recently started the recruitment process and shortlisting of three suitably qualified candidates to be submitted to the relevant MRC bodies for selection of the finalist later this year. If all things are equal, perhaps consideration should be given to a woman so that the MRC Secretariat could finally showcase having the first female head in the organisation’s history, in line with mainstreaming gender in its activities in accordance with its own gender policy and plan.

It would be a challenging task for Thailand to find someone best qualified for such a multi-faceted role but the country must, without fail, exert its fullest efforts on this particular occasion in continuing to build on the achievements of the preceding riparian CEOs.

The term of the Thai CEO also comes at a pivotal juncture for the Mekong River itself and the interplay of various other critical factors in the Mekong Sub-region. It could ultimately have a crucial bearing on how the trajectory of the MRC evolves in the future. For one, the Mekong Agreement signed in 1995 has never been reviewed or adjusted for almost 30 years despite the tremendous changes that have occurred in the river system itself as well as in the Mekong sub-regional geo-political-economic-strategic landscape.

In sum, Thailand can and should step up and play a more proactive and intensified role in the foreseeable future as a catalytic player and bridge builder for forging concerted Mekong cooperative engagement. This would result in strategic indigenous-driven win-win outcomes, yielding more concrete and timely benefits for the present generation and beyond.

[Apichai Sunchindah is an independent development specialist on ASEAN and Mekong affairs and former executive director of the ASEAN Foundation]