A US$20 million initiative is aimed at creating a huge development zone between the three neighbours, spurring greater commerce and business
The Sekong bridge linking Cambodia to Laos lies unfinished in this file photo. Work on the bridge was completed earlier this year, but transport links between the two countries remain poor.
TRADE ministers from Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam are to meet next month to discuss funding plans for a huge development zone straddling the three countries, which officials say they hope will bring more trade and tourism to some of the countries' most isolated but resource-rich provinces.
"It's a huge national development plan," Bou Lam, deputy governor of Ratanakkiri province, said of the proposed zone, which also includes Cambodia's Stung Treng and Mondulkiri provinces.
"We don't have much substantial investment here to capitalise on our rich natural environment."
He added that the project would also generate much-needed jobs in the province.
"If all these projects are completed, I believe the northern provinces will become much less isolated from the rest of the country," he said.
The Japan Asean Integration Fund granted US$20 million during a meeting last year in Phnom Penh to finance development projects in 10 provinces contained by the Cambodia-Laos-Vietnam Development Triangle (CLV) zone. Ministers are to be tasked with disbursing the money.
Cambodia and Laos are to each receive $7.5 million, and Vietnam is to get $3.5 million.
An additional $1.5 million will be used to study new road links within the CLV zone, according to a Ministry of Commerce document obtained by the Post.
We have great potential for the production of rubber, cassava, cashews.
"Our aim is to improve the infrastructure of the 10 provinces within the triangle and allow residents to move freely as they do in large cities," said Thon Virak, deputy director general for the Foreign Trade Department of the Commerce Ministry.
Trade with Vietnam, which has reached $900 million since January, is expected to top $1 billion this year and account for 10 percent of Cambodia's overseas commerce, according to Foreign Trade Department figures.
But trade between Cambodia and Laos is only $1 million per year, and Thon Virak said one of the government's top priorities was to complete road links between Stung Treng and Laos' Champassak province.
"We are badly in need of road infrastructure to improve cross-border access and to capitalise further on the rising number of tourists arriving in Stung Treng from Laos," said provincial Governor Loy Sophat.
Future development, he added, will stop villagers from leaving the province to find better employment opportunities.
"Here we have great potential for the production of rubber, cassava, cashews and other crops," Loy Sophat said.
Development of the area's mineral resources and the eco-tourism potential of Virachey National Park could also strengthen a growing local economy that has already seen a 20 percent rise in annual tourism arrivals countrywide, he said.
Thon Virak said the government has already sketched out provincial projects to be paid for with its portion of the Japanese funds, including hydropower, road and clean water projects in Ratanakkiri province, as well as agricultural and tourism projects in Mondulkiri and Stung Treng provinces.
Trinh Ba Cam, a spokesman for the Vietnamese Embassy in Phnom Penh, said the goal of the triangle development zone was to improve people's lives.
"I think [it] will help improve living conditions, tourism and investment opportunities for all three nations," he said.
Kengchai Sixannon, first secretary for the Laotian Embassy, told the Post that his country welcomes the development projects.
"We need cross-border tourism among the three nations," Kenghchai said, adding that he is pressing for substantial investment in hotels, restaurants and other municipal services in his country's more under-developed provinces.
"We want to see the lives of people in our countries dramatically improve," he said.
"I hope the development plan will accomplish this," he added.