A splash of harsh reality for Indochina

A splash of harsh reality for Indochina

As much of Indochina marked the New Year this week, it faces a potentially turbulent year.

On Monday, a traditional Khmer drummer heralded the dawn of the Year 2557 in the Buddhist calendar from atop Wat Phnom in Cambodia's capital. In neighbouring Thailand, the deep hum of temple gongs resonated across rice paddy fields.

From Mandalay to Bangkok, and from Phnom Penh to Chiang Mai, the people of Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar sprayed water on each other, visited temples, and were blessed by family elders.

Cambodian Premier Hun Sen issued a rosy statement, making no reference to questions hanging over the July 2013 elections which nearly saw his 28-year rule upended, or to labour strikes where troops fired at workers - or to unrest over land grabs by the rich and well connected.

In Laos, a one-party state which rarely sees dissent, armed police had to be summoned this month when angry locals confronted surveyors from a Chinese company in the province of Bokeo.

Laos is coming under increasing scrutiny. Cambodians have protested against its proposed Don Sahong dam. And referring to the Xayaburi dam, Vietnam's minister of natural resources and environment Nguyen Minh Quang said on April 5: "We hoped Laos would also pay attention to the opinions of other countries."

Lao officials say the building of the US$3.5 billion (S$4.4 billion) dam at Xayaburi is 23 per cent complete and see hydropower as a critical asset and export.

In Myanmar, while disputes over the control of land and natural resources abound - some of them legacies of the dictatorship years - most economic reforms have been praised.

On the political front, the first draft of a nationwide ceasefire agreement - being touted as a watershed after decades of civil war and insurgencies - was agreed on April 8. But days later, fresh clashes displaced hundreds of Kachin and Shan people.

A committee tasked to work on amending the military-drafted Constitution which bars opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from the presidency, is due to resume work in May. But how far will the army accommodate changes that may be seen as rolling back its interests?

Meanwhile in Rakhine state, the misery of the Rohingya Muslim minority, now deprived of international aid because of the hostility of the majority Buddhist Rakhines, is only getting deeper.

As for Thailand, surveys show most Thais are deeply worried about the political fight that has polarised the nation and stalled the economy.

The country has been without a sitting legislature since December last year.

Earlier this month the World Bank, reducing this year's growth forecast for Thailand from 4.5 to 3 per cent, said delays in large infrastructure projects would affect growth in the long run, while continuing political instability was diverting attention from long-term challenges such as improving skills and competitiveness.

In a commentary in the Bangkok Post on April 11, Chulalongkorn University associate professor Thitinan Pongsudhirak wrote that middle-income Thailand resembled "a country with G-20 potential that performs now like a Third World basket case".

nirmal@sph.com.sg

This article was published on April 18 in The Straits Times.

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