PRIME Minister Hun Sen arrived in Thailand on Sunday to attend a two-day summit of the Mekong River Commission (MRC), convened amid regional concerns about drought and low river levels, on a trip that marked the premier’s first visit to the neighbouring country since Thai-Cambodian relations began to deteriorate last year.
The first day of the two-day summit consisted primarily of bilateral meetings, with a joint declaration expected today. Hun Sen’s arrival in the Thai resort town of Hua Hin reportedly coincided with protests by around 100 activists from the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), known as Yellow Shirts, who branded him an “enemy of Thailand”.
In a Saturday statement submitted to the Thai government, the PAD accused Hun Sen of “trying to seize Thailand’s territory along the common border as well as ... in the Gulf of Thailand”, according to the Thai News Agency.
Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Koy Kuong said Sunday that Thailand had secured the summit site for Hun Sen and the other delegates, and that Cambodia was unconcerned about the protesters.
“These people are useless. We don’t care about them,” Koy Kuong said.
Although Hun Sen was planning to meet on the sidelines of summit with representatives from Laos and China, Koy Kuong said, he did not intend to meet directly with Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.
The last time Hun Sen travelled to Thailand, for an October ASEAN summit, he criticised Abhisit’s government and said he planned to appoint fugitive former Thai prime minister and bitter Abhisit rival Thaksin Shinawatra as an economic adviser. The fallout from Thaksin’s appointment led to a diplomatic tit-for-tat, with each country withdrawing its respective ambassador.
In a possible step towards rapprochement, however, Thailand’s The Nation newspaper reported Sunday that Hun Sen told Thai Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban on the sidelines of the MRC summit that Thaksin will not be invited to Cambodia during the ongoing antigovernment protests in Thailand.
Thai government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn said that although there were “no plans” for a bilateral meeting between Hun Sen and Abhisit – Abhisit was set to meet with leaders from Vietnam and Laos – the Cambodian premier’s trip to Thailand could nonetheless be seen as a step forward in the countries’ relationship.
“We have many common concerns about the management of the river,” Panitan said. “We welcome participation of all leaders in this regard.”
Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam – the four countries that make up the MRC – are expected to press visiting Chinese representatives during the summit to provide information on their damming practices and release water held upstream.
MRC communications adviser Damian Kean hailed the summit as “a recognition of the importance given to shared management of the basin’s water resources”, noting that the gathering marked the first time that heads of government had been present at an MRC meeting.
One concern likely to be aired at the summit is the claim that Chinese hydropower dams on the river may be the cause of this year’s historically low river levels, a claim that the Chinese have repeatedly denied.
Echoing the statements of other Chinese officials, Qian Hai, spokesman for the Chinese embassy in Phnom Penh, said last week that China’s dams are not responsible for the Mekong River’s falling water levels downstream, pointing instead to a region-wide drought.
The MRC’s own analysis, Kean said, suggests that drought is the main culprit.
Carl Middleton, Mekong programme coordinator for the International Rivers organisation, said the debate can’t be settled definitively until China expands the amount of information it makes public on the subject. Currently, China has agreed only to share data until the end of the drought, and only for the lower points of the river in China.
The currently available data, Middleton said, do not include the Xiaowan dam in southwest China, which could be the cause of the Mekong’s falling levels if water from the last rainy season is still being stored there.
“If it still has water remaining, then it is possible to release some downstream to alleviate the drought conditions,” he said.
In a statement Friday, the MRC warned that the Mekong basin and the ecosystems dependent on the river, which is at its lowest level in nearly 20 years, could be threatened by expanding populations and the construction of further dams.
“Over the past five years, significant changes have taken place in water-related resources, and this is likely to continue, which may put livelihoods under threat,” the statement read.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY JAMES O’TOOLE