Vietnam should ask Cambodia to delay canal project: experts

Participants at a Vietnamese-sponsored consultation have suggested that Hanoi should ask Phnom Penh to delay a proposed  canal project for further discussions, amid Vietnamese worries about the project’s environmental and economic impact.

Construction of the 180 km (112 mile) Funan Techo canal, connecting the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, with the Gulf of Thailand, is planned to begin later this year and to be completed within four years.

The proposed canal will include a section of the Mekong River, raising concern in Vietnam about the impact downstream, especially in Vietnam’s rice-growing Mekong Delta. The canal could “reduce the flow of the river by up to 50% by the time it comes to Vietnam,” said Le Anh Tuan, a prominent Vietnamese scientist. 

Vietnam needs more time for consultation in order to protect the river’s delta, home to 17.4 million people, Tuan told the meeting in the town delta of Can Tho.

Another expert, Dang Thanh Lam from the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, said Vietnam must ask for an environment impact report from Cambodia.

The U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh also called for more information, saying that the Cambodian people as well as people in neighboring countries “would benefit from transparency on any major undertaking with potential implications for regional water and agricultural sustainability.”

“We urge authorities to coordinate closely with the Mekong River Commission (MRC) to provide additional project details and to participate fully in any appropriate environmental impact studies to help the MRC and member countries fully understand, assess, and prepare for any possible impacts of the project,” an embassy spokesperson said.

Mekong fisherman.JPG
Ly Van Bon, the owner of the Bay Bon fish pond located on the Mekong river which was affected by sediment, shows redtail catfish inside his fish pond in Mekong’s regional capital Can Tho, Vietnam, May 25, 2022. (Reuters/Athit Perawongmetha)

For its part, Cambodia said it had secured endorsement for the project from the MRC chairman – Lao President Thongloun Sisoulith.

Sisoulith has just visited Phnom Penh and, during a meeting with Cambodian Senate leader and former prime minister Hun Sen, he was asked to show his support for the canal. 

“In response, the Laotian president, without hesitation, announced his support,” Cambodia’s Fresh News media outlet, which is supportive of the government, reported.

No obligation 

Laos and Cambodia are both long-term allies of Vietnam but both have in recent years leaned more towards China.

Vietnam has repeatedly expressed concerns about the possible environmental and economic impacts of the project.

This month, a Vietnamese foreign ministry spokesperson urged Cambodia to provide information and an impact assessment on the water resources and ecological balance of the delta region.

In response, a senior Cambodian official said that Phnom Penh was not obliged to do so.

Cambodia’s Minister Delegate attached to the Prime Minister in charge of ASEAN affairs, So Naro, told the Khmer Times that Cambodia was not legally required to submit any document to Vietnam  regarding the studies and construction of the Funan Techo canal.

Cambodia had submitted “all documents of the studies on the canal related to the impacts on the environment and the water resources” to the MRC, So Naro said. The MRC is an intergovernmental organisation in charge of the sustainable management of the Mekong basin.

“The Vietnamese authorities can request access to those files,” So Naro said.

Cambodia has insisted that the canal  would not disrupt the flow of the Mekong. 

Canal map.png
The projected Funan Techo canal (in blue). (Google Maps/ RFA)

Officially known as the Tonle Bassac Navigation Road and Logistics System Project, the Funan Techo canal will be developed by a Chinese company at a cost of US$1.7 billion.

It will mean that more trade can flow directly to Cambodian  ports, bypassing Vietnam. The Cambodian government said it would cut the transport costs and reduce dependence on Vietnamese ports.

It also said that the project will bring great social and economic benefits to 1.6 million Cambodians living along the canal.

Security questions

Besides the environment and economic impacts, analysts say Vietnam is also worried about the security implications of the canal.

There have been suggestions that the canal could allow Chinese navy ships to travel upstream from the Gulf of Thailand and the Chinese-developed Ream naval base on the Cambodian coast close to the border with Vietnam. 

Cambodia has rejected such speculation with Hun Sen insisting that Cambodia and Vietnam “are good neighbors and have good cooperation in all fields.”

But Vietnam has been in dispute with China over some island chains in the South China Sea and it eyes China’s involvement in the region with suspicion.

Vietnam shares a long land border with Cambodia. Between 1977-1978 there was fighting between Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese troops during the so-called southwest border war, which led to a Vietnamese invasion and the establishment of a pro-Hanoi government in Cambodia.

The situation on Vietnam’s western border should get more attention because of “threats of untraditional security challenges, mostly over the Mekong delta,” said Nguyen The Phuong, a Vietnamese political scientist at the University of New South Wales in Australia.

“A loss of the Mekong’s ability to sustain large scale food production will have tremendous impact on Vietnam’s security in the south,” Phuong said.

“From my point of view, the western front is becoming more critical day by day but Vietnam is too distracted by maritime issues at the eastern front, or the South China Sea.”

Edited by Mike Firn and Taejun Kang.

Five Rohingya found dead after Arakan Army arrest

Five Rohingya Muslims arrested by ethnic minority insurgents in western Myanmar have been found dead, sources close to the victims’ families told Radio Free Asia on Wednesday.

The five ethnic Rohingya men were arrested by the Arakan Army in Rakhine State’s Maungdaw township on April 17, they said. Their bodies were found on Monday. The Arakan Army denied killing the men.

Rohingya Muslims have faced persecution in Buddhist-majority Myanmar for generations. Recently, they have been targeted by the junta in a recruitment drive to bolster their army’s numbers. Many Rohingya have been forced to move into poorly equipped camps because of a surge in fighting between members of the Arakan Army, drawn largely from the Buddhist community, and junta forces. Travel bans and security blockades have further affected many residents of the state.

The five men, from Ah Bu Gyar village,  had not been heard from after they were detained, one person close to the family of one of the dead said. 

The Arakan Army detained the men for interrogation after clashing with members of a Muslim insurgent group, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, near the village, residents said. 

“They have been arrested since April 17 and have not been able to contact their families. [The Arakan Army] said they would release them,” said one resident, who declined to be identified for security reasons. “But on April 22, some villagers found them at the Ywet Nyo Taung creek shore.”

The families did not  know why the five were killed, one relative said, adding that relatives were also not allowed to collect the bodies.

Sources close to the families identified the victims as Abdul Amen, 54, a former village secretary, Malawe Mohamed Sayad, 40, Aisalam, 61, Arbul Karlam and Numar Lal Hakem 27.

Arakan Army spokesman Khaing Thukha told RFA his group did not arrest the five residents, nor did it kill detainees. The group had “nothing to do,” with the case, he said.

“We would never do this kind of lawless and unjust killing,” Khaing Thuka told RFA.

Khaing Thukha said various insurgent groups and drugs gangs operated in the region

“It’s a complex area,” he said. “Among the criminal gangs, there are sometimes murders because one side is not satisfied with the other.”

He also said that people opposed to the Arakan Army could be trying to damage its reputation in the community.

Arakan Army fighters attacked a police station near the border with Bangladesh, near Maungdaw township’s Ywet Nyo Taung village, on April 17, residents said. Almost all villagers in the area had abandoned their homes and fled after the attack.

A Myanmar army offensive in the area launched after insurgent attacks on police posts in 2017 sparked an exodus of some 750,000 refugees into Bangladesh.

Translated by RFA Burmese. Edited by Kiana Duncan and Mike Firn.

Thailand warns Myanmar’s rivals against using its soil for harm: ministers

Thailand has warned Myanmar’s junta and rebel groups against using its territory for “their own sake,” Thailand’s defense minister said, amid fears that fighting in eastern Myanmar could spill over the Thai-Myanmar border. 

Over the weekend, Myanmar junta forces battled anti-junta insurgents in the Myanmar border town of Myawaddy, opposite the Thai town of Mae Sot, a major conduit for trade between the neighbors.

The escalating violence in Myanmar has sent refugees fleeing across the border into Thailand. Junta air strikes on Saturday and Sunday, in response to the capture by rebels of junta strongholds in Myawaddy, sent about 3,000 people over the Thai border seeking safety.

“Today, we were able to have a discussion and send a message to the other side [Myanmar junta and ethnic groups] regarding whether there are planes to be flown in the area,” Thailand’s minister of defense,Sutin Klungsang, told a conference with other senior Thai government officials on Tuesday. 

“We would have the capacity to intercept those planes. It was a friendly message, but meant as somewhat of a warning.”

Myanmar’s neighbors in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have tried to promote a resolution of the crisis in Myanmar which began when the military overthrew an elected government in early 2021. But Myanmar’s generals have largely ignored ASEAN’s efforts. Thailand has established a committee to handle the crisis but political analyst Panitan Wattanayagorn believes this only indicates that previous mechanisms are not working.

“It suggests to you that the normal mechanism at the office for the National Security Council doesn’t work, it’s quite problematic,” Panitan told Radio Free Asia on Wednesday.  

He said Thai government statements on protecting sovereignty, and on humanitarian aid and neutrality may not be enough to restore public confidence in border security and reactions were too slow and general.

“This is not enough to calm down the panic or the worries of the people, of the traders, of the international community and ASEAN,” he said, emphasizing that Thailand’s defense system also needed to be improved. 

“We need to move more quickly to exert our power and push the position to get more things done.”

Thai media outlets reported more clashes in Myawaddy as of Tuesday, but Thai government ministers said they were hopeful that the situation was returning to normal.

On Wednesday, there were reports that the anti-junta Karen National Liberation Army had withdrawn “temporarily” from Myawaddy following a counteroffensive by the junta.

“The situation has improved in the past couple of days and we are happy to see it under the good care of the agencies on the ground,” said Minister of the Interior Anutin Charnvirakul at Tuesday’s conference. “We look forward to the normalcy that will come in the days ahead.”

Anutin added that tourists could safely visit Mae Sot and that border trade was still flowing. 

“This is Thai sovereign territory and we are well-prepared to respond to any eventuality,” he said.

Edited by Taejun Kang and Mike Firn. 

Solomon Islands PM Sogavare commands largest bloc in Parliament after election

Manasseh Sogavare, the pro-Beijing prime minister of the Solomon Islands, commands the largest bloc in Parliament after elections last week, but fell short of a majority and faces several rivals for leadership of the Pacific island country.

A consecutive term for Sogavare is a possible flashpoint for the economically struggling country where many voters are frustrated by stagnating living standards. The outcome is also being watched by governments from China to Australia and the United States as they jostle for influence in the Pacific.

Sogavare’s Ownership Unity Responsibility Party, known as OUR, won 15 seats in the 50-member Parliament, state media and election commentators said Wednesday – well short of the numbers needed to elect Sogavare prime minister after independents and opposition parties unseated some of his loyalists. 

“At a minimum the message is pro-change,” Jaydee Nomisasa, a commentator on Solomon Islands politics, told RFA-affiliated news organization BenarNews. 

“Predominantly it’s the dissatisfaction with the way things have been going economically – a 20 kilo bag of rice, which was costing 90 [Solomon Islands] dollars, 100 dollars five years ago, is now something like 200 dollars.”

The Apr. 17 election in the country of 700,000 people was the first since Sogavare switched diplomatic recognition to China from Taiwan in 2019 and signed a security pact with the superpower. Dissatisfaction with the diplomatic switch culminated in economically ruinous riots in the capital Honiara in late 2021. 

Sogavare retained his East Choiseul constituency in a close first-past-the-post race. His share of votes in the seat was down more than 10 percentage points from 2019, official results show. 

He acknowledged his “very small” winning margin, in an interview broadcast by Solomon Islands news site Tavuli News on Wednesday, and appeared to blame the U.S. and its allies for the decline in his support.

“There have been a number of decisions [by the Cabinet] that did not go down well with the international community, especially the Western allies led by the United States of America,” he said.

Campaigning in the constituency included claims the U.S. “would be doing a lot of things for East Choiseul, would be building this, building that,” Sogavare said.  

Despite the apparent backlash against the government, Sogavare still seems in a strong position to be prime minister again, said Nomisasa, who estimates he already has at least 19 members of Parliament in his camp. 

The Solomon Islands Parliament is seen from a street in Honiara on Nov. 19., 2022. (Stephen Wright/BenarNews)

Mihai Sora, a Pacific analyst at the Lowy Institute think tank, said Sogavare, former prime minister Gordon Darcy Lilo – who won the Central Honiara constituency with a landslide majority – and Sogavare’s Foreign Minister Jeremiah Manele are considered contenders to become prime minister. 

Matthew Wale, who was opposition leader in the last Parliament, and Peter Kenilorea Jr., son of the Solomon Islands’ first independence-era prime minister, are also in the picture, he said.

“If opposition figures like Peter Kenilorea Jr. or Matthew Wale are successful in forming a government, there is some scope to slow or reverse the trend of increasing Chinese influence in the country. But in some ways that horse has bolted,” said Sora. 

“Much still depends on how the new government is formed, who takes the top job, and what promises were made along the way.”

Wale’s Coalition for Accountability Reform and Empowerment, known as CARE, has 13 seats in Parliament and Kenilorea’s United Party won seven. Both parties substantially increased their share of the vote from the 2019 election. 

Independents hold 10 seats and the remainder is shared among smaller parties.

There are no figures from the 2019 election for the OUR party. Sogavare was elected as an independent in 2019 and subsequently brought together independents and others to form a majority under the banner of OUR, which was registered as a party following the election.

Going into last week’s polls, voters interviewed by BenarNews in Honiara and other areas of Guadalcanal said they were frustrated by the government’s ineffectiveness in providing basic services and preoccupied by the daily struggle to earn enough to get by.

Crumbling roads and run down health clinics were a common complaint as were high prices in mostly Chinese-owned shops in Honiara. In a village kilometers from the capital, one resident said he hoped the community could get bore water and proper toilets rather than having to dig pits in the ground.

Anti-China sentiment appeared to be a factor in voting in Malaita, the most populous province, where a prominent Beijing critic, Daniel Suidani, was reelected to the provincial assembly after being ousted as premier last year.

Hundreds of police and troops from Australia, Fiji, Papua New Guinea and New Zealand provided security for the national and provincial elections, which were also monitored by nearly 400 independent observers. 

Based on past experience, there could be prolonged negotiating and horse trading among members of Parliament to choose a prime minister and form a government, analysts said.

“At this very early stage in the political bargaining process, it’s still anyone’s game to win,” said Sora, a former diplomat in the region.

BenarNews is an RFA-affiliated online news organization.

North Korea sends officials to Iran amid suspected military cooperation

A North Korean delegation led by the cabinet minister for international trade is visiting Iran, the North’s state-run media reported on Wednesday, amid suspicion Tehran used North Korean weapons technology for its attack on Israel.

The minister for external economic relations, Yun Jong Ho, left Pyongyang on Tuesday by air leading a ministry delegation to Iran, the Korean Central News Agency said, without providing further details. 

Yun, who previously worked on ties with Syria, has been active in North Korea’s increasing exchanges with Russia, this month leading a delegation on a visit to Moscow, KCNA added. 

The North’s announcement comes after some experts raised the possibility that North Korean parts or military technology could have been used by Iran against Israel, following the launch of more than 300 drones and missiles on April 13. The experts cited close military cooperation between Pyongyang and Tehran.

South Korea’s spy agency, the National Intelligence Service, said last Wednesday it was looking into whether the North’s weapons technology was used in the ballistic missiles that Iran launched against Israel. 

“We are keeping tabs on whether the North Korean technology was included in Iran’s ballistic missiles launched against Israel, given the North and Iran’s missile cooperation in the past,” the NIS said.

Separately, Matthew Miller, a U.S. State Department spokesperson, said last Tuesday that the United States was “incredibly concerned” about long-suspected military cooperation between North Korea and Iran.

Having established diplomatic ties in 1973, North Korea and Iran have long been suspected of cooperating on ballistic missile programs, possibly exchanging technical expertise and components for their manufacture.

A 2019 report by the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency showed Iran’s Shahab-3 ballistic missiles were developed based on North Korea’s midrange Rodong missiles. 

The Khorramshahr missile that Iran has developed is also believed to be technically linked to North Korea’s Musudan missiles.

North Korea has also been suspected of involvement in arms trade with Russia, although the two countries have denied that transfers have taken place.

The NIS has said that since August, North Korea has made 10 weapons transfers of an estimated one million shells to Russia, according to the NIS, which is widely seen as an attempt by North Korea to boost its sagging economy amid aftermath of COVID-19 and international sanctions. 

Other reports have suggested North Korea has delivered ballistic missiles to Russia’s military, citing U.S. satellite images.

Edited by Mike Firn.