The Mekong River Commission’s secretariat in Phnom Penh – one of two for the group, charged with managing the river’s sustainable development – is being shuttered in favour of a single office in Vientiane, a decision that has provoked widespread concern among current and former MRC employees alike.
News of the move, first heard by many at the MRC offices yesterday, was delivered during a Monday speech by Prime Minister Hun Sen upon his return from accepting a “lifetime achievement” award in the Lao capital.
“We have been pulling the crab’s shell, meaning that there are two sections [offices] in Cambodia and two in Laos, therefore we are pleased to hand over to Laos to take control, but we will keep the [MRC’s] centre for flood management,” the premier said.
Hun Sen went on to frame the decision as a trade-off of sorts, saying that while the MRC offices would be closing, Cambodia had gained an ASEAN demining centre to be located in the capital.
“Cambodia gained support from our ASEAN friends to settle [the Regional Mine Action Centre] in Phnom Penh,” he said.
In a statement provided to the Post yesterday, the MRC secretariat in Vientiane said the move, described as a Cambodian proposal, was all but official.
“Over the past few months, the MRC member countries have been discussing the possibility of consolidating the two main offices into one. At this point the Lao government is considering Cambodia’s proposal to have only one main Secretariat office in Vientiane, Lao PDR and a decision is expected within the next few months. The Lao government is likely to accept Cambodia’s proposal,” the statement reads.
While the MRC’s office of flood management and mitigation will remain in the country, the looming closure of the secretariat, which employs 29 people, yesterday provoked deep consternation among current employees.
A member of the team’s support staff speaking on condition of anonymity said that employees had still not been formally informed of the decision as of yesterday. “We still have no official letter from the headquarters yet,” they said. “It was on television; my friend sent it to me on Facebook.
“We are not happy, not only me, all of our staff, [as] this information affects the general support staff”, which is entirely Cambodian, they continued, adding that employees had held an impromptu meeting about the matter yesterday to express their displeasure. Some, they said, have begun looking for new jobs.
The decision comes amid an ongoing restructuring of the four-country MRC – Vietnam and Thailand are the other two members – that was initiated in 2010 in a bid to make the body financially self-sustaining.
Since then, much of the river-basin management – particularly as it relates to tributaries of the Mekong – has fallen out of the MRC’s purview and into that of individual governments.
The MRC has previously been strongly criticised by current and former employees for being weak and ineffectual at a time when the river system is in dire need of protection and sustainable management.
Ian Thomas, a former technical adviser for drought at the MRC, yesterday expressed concern over the move.
“The Mekong River is too important for Cambodia to give up the MRC [to] Laos,” he said. “Why? When we see thousands of irrigation dams popping up in Thailand, the Don Sahong in Laos and have the biggest inland fishery in the world under threat and a third of the Tonle Sap’s swamp forests [going] up in flames.
“We’re in the most important inland fishery in the word and we’re running out of fish; it’s ridiculous,” he said.
With the secretariat solely in Laos, home to one of the most controversial dam projects on the Mekong, the MRC may find itself in a situation similar to the 1990s, when critics say the body’s CEO was forced to resign for pushing back against Thai projects when the secretariat was based in Thailand.
What’s more, “Laos is the least cooperative country in the MRC,” Thomas added.
Additional reporting by Touch Sokha