Myanmar crisis cited as a challenge to regional efforts to save Mekong River

According to the Institute for Strategy and Policy Myanmar, more than 7,800 clashes have taken place since the coup.


Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia have pledged to strengthen collaboration in efforts to conserve the Mekong River, which has been decimated over the years. PHOTO: AFP

April 6, 2023

BANGKOK – Myanmar’s ongoing crisis was raised as a possible hindrance to regional cooperation to save the Mekong River, as other countries along the important waterway pledged on Wednesday to strengthen collaboration in efforts to conserve the water resource.

At the quadrennial Mekong River Commission (MRC) Summit in Laos’ capital Vientiane, member countries Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia pledged to take proactive measures to adapt to climate change, build a more effective notification system for unusual water flows and other emergencies, and explore innovative financing to pursue these efforts.

The 4,900km-long river, which originates in China, has been decimated over the years by rapid dam building in riparian countries as well as climate change.

Its fish stocks are under distress, while sand-mining and upstream sediment trapping have reduced the transport of nutrient-rich sediments by 60 per cent to 90 per cent, threatening the stability of river banks downstream.

Myanmar, along with China, is a dialogue partner of the MRC.

At the summit on Wednesday, Myanmar was represented by Mr Hla Maung Thein, permanent secretary of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation, which is now controlled by the Myanmar military that seized power in a February 2021 coup.

Although Myanmar junta chief Min Aung Hlaing has assumed the title of prime minister, his regime is being challenged by ousted parliamentarians as well as numerous armed groups that have arisen in response to the coup. The junta chief himself has so far been shut out of Asean summits.

Mr Hla Maung Thein began his speech at the Vientiane summit by saying he was attending the event on behalf of his government and “head of state, Prime Minister Senior General Min Aung Hlaing”.

He pointed out that the MRC is a professional organisation working for water resources cooperation, and urged it not to be involved in the “political agenda of any particular country”.

He further said Myanmar would cease its technical cooperation with the MRC if any political agenda was involved.

Mr Pedro Zwahlen, Switzerland’s Ambassador to Cambodia, Laos and Thailand, who was speaking as a representative of the MRC’s development partners, responded by saying they “remain concerned that the worsening political, economic and humanitarian crisis in Myanmar has negatively impacted efforts to advance Mekong cooperation”.

“The Myanmar military’s ongoing violence has exacerbated the conflict within the country and fuelled greater instability in the Mekong region,” he said.

Citing the United Nations Security Council resolution passed in December 2022, Mr Zwahlen called “for the immediate end to violence throughout the country”, and urged the Myanmar military to respect human rights and the rule of law.

“(Development partners) urge the Myanmar military to immediately release all those arbitrarily detained, to engage with all stakeholders in pursuit of a resolution to the crisis, and to fully and swiftly implement the Asean five-point consensus,” he said, referring to the road map for a resolution crafted by the 10-nation bloc in 2021.

Other MRC development partners that endorsed this statement included Australia, the European Union, France, Germany, Japan and the United States.

According to the Institute for Strategy and Policy Myanmar, more than 7,800 clashes have taken place since the coup, while the Myanmar military has razed and bombed districts in areas where it faces the most resistance.

The think-tank also said that more than 1.9 million people in the country were forced to flee their homes after the power grab.

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