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Beijing’s plan to blast rocks and rapids in the Mekong River to make way for bigger boats and faster trade is strongly opposed by grass roots activists

 

A Chinese boat with a team of geologists surveys the Mekong River at the border between Laos and Thailand April 23, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Jorge Silva

China’s plan to blast rocks and islets to improve downstream navigation along the Mekong River represents the latest Beijing-led scheme to facilitate stronger trade ties to Southeast Asia.

While regional governments have generally welcomed Chinese investment in trade-promoting infrastructure, there is strong and rising grass roots resistance in Thailand to its controversial plans for the Mekong. 

Three Chinese ships with a reported 60 engineers on board commenced a survey on April 19th under the direction of China’s CCCC Second Harbor Consultant Co Ltd, a subsidiary of state-owned conglomerate China Communications.

The engineers are probing all impediments to navigation along a 96-kilometer stretch along the Mekong River between Thailand and Laos, from the Thai riparian town of Chiang Saen south towards the Thai border town of Chiang Khong.

 

China has set out to tame the same roaring rapids and rocky islets of the Mekong that repeatedly thwarted the ambitions of French colonial explorers to open a new trading route. Those 19th century plans foundered on the rapids and the waterfalls of Si Phan Don in southern Laos bordering Cambodia.

One Chinese engineer involved in the clearing commented said his team sees their work as part of China’s “One Belt, One Road” multinational infrastructure drive that aims to make China a global trade hub, according to media reports. However, China’s plan to improve downstream navigation predates the grand global initiative. 

By 2020, China plans to remove all natural obstacles to engineering a safe 890-kilometer shipping lane stretching from the southern Yunnan province port of Simao, through Thailand’s northern stretch of the river, to the ancient royal Lao capital and now tourism hub of Luang Prabang.

Opposition protests, however, represent a mounting challenge to that downstream plan.

More than one hundred Thai nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) led by the Chiang Khong Conservation Group and the Save the Mekong Campaign, both spearheaded by environmental activists, aim to protect the ecologically precious islets and rapids at Khon Pi Luang, about 20 kilometers upriver from the Thai border port of Chiang Khong.

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