Myanmar, other Mekong countries aim to grow closer at Laos regional summit

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Article from AFP

HANOI – Leaders from the six Mekong River countries are meeting in Laos  for two days this week to discuss closer integration, mainly through new  transport corridors and a regional power grid.  The Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) groups China’s southern Yunnan and  Guangxi provinces with Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmar.

Initiated by the Asian Development Bank (ADB), the group was founded in  1992 to boost economic growth and reduce poverty in the countries that share the Mekong, Southeast Asia’s largest river. 

The region was for decades isolated and impoverished by post-colonial  struggles and the Vietnam war that in the 1960s and 1970s spilled into  Laos as well as Cambodia, which then fell under the bloody reign of the Khmer Rouge. 

Since the 1990s, the region, though plagued by poverty, has been mostly at peace and has collectively grown at one of the fastest rates in the  world, with average economic growth of 7.9 percent in 2005, the ADB said.  The Mekong region is home to more than 266 million people, most of whom rely on agriculture and fishing. The population is set to reach 290 million by 2015. 

Six premiers were expected at the mostly closed-door summit – China’s Wen Jiabao, Thailand’s Samak Sundaravej, Vietnam’s Nguyen Tan Dung,  Cambodia’s Hun Sen, Myanmar’s Thein Sein and the Lao host, Bouasone  Bouphavanh.  GMS leaders previously met in Phnom Penh in 2002 and China in 2005.

The summit is the “highest-level affirmation of the desire and  willingness to continue to incorporate as a subregion,” SAID John Cooney,  the ADB’s infrastructure division director for Southeast Asia. To boost development and fight poverty, the GMS has aimed to integrate the diverse countries with one another and the global economy.

The ADB has promoted cross-border transport links such as the east-west  economic corridor, a 1600-kilometre network of highways that will soon  connect Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam in a bid to boost overland  travel and trade.  “The initial strategy was largely road focused,” said Cooney. “We’re looking at new links but also new nodes – inland waterways, air, rail. The countries will keep adding links across the borders, much as Europe is  doing now.” 

China’s Assistant Foreign Minister He Yafei said Wednesday that the goal was “mutual connectivity in terms of infrastructure with our neighbouring countries,” including railways, highways and Internet tie ups.  “The general purpose is to be mutually beneficial for win-win progress,  and the mutual infrastructure will help us ensure that there is development, not only in China but in the whole subregion,” He added. 

The Manila-based ADB has also promoted the idea of a regional power grid.  “One country can share its surplus capacity with another country,” said  Cooney. “The power demanding countries – Vietnam, Thailand, to a lesser extent  Cambodia – require power imports. Laos has power for export, as does Myanmar.”  The UN Environment Program, in its Greater Mekong Environmental Outlook 2007 report, highlighted the region’s opportunities and challenges. 

“Across the GMS, the generally low level of development means that both the need and the opportunities for economic growth are high,” it said.  “The rapid economic growth of the past few decades is expected to continue, fuelled by industrialisation, trade and investment. It should lift more people out of poverty, improving living standards, health, nutrition and livelihoods.”  But it also said that so far much of the growth “has bypassed rural areas, which continue to perform poorly by almost every social and economic indicator.”

“In parts of the GMS,” the report said, “it has also put great pressure on the environment in the form of air and water pollution, water shortages, land degradation and the depletion of biodiversity.” – AFP