Mekong Officials Search for Economic Growth

Senior officials from the six nations of the Mekong subregion met in Phnom Penh on Monday to begin discussions on how to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to increase economic ties, trade and tourism.

“We should use this opportunity to bring our programs forward,” said Yuejiao Zhang, deputy director-general of the Mekong Depart­ment of the Asian Develop­ment Bank, in opening the Min­isterial Conference of the Greater Me­kong Subregion Economic Co­operation Program.

The GMS has guided $2 billion in investment since it was formed by the ADB in 1992, bank officials said. About a third was supplied by the multilateral bank itself and the rest by governments and private investors.

The conference this week is to prepare for the first-ever meeting of heads of state to discuss GMS issues, scheduled for the day be­fore the Asean summit begins in early November in Phnom Penh .

“We need a stronger commitment, a political commitment, to accelerate cooperation,” said Tsukasa Maekawa, an ADB spokesman.

Senior officials, ministers and donors are expected to discuss details of major development projects designed to link the South­east Asian countries through roads and telecommunications, and agreements designed to lessen barriers to trade.

The GMS eventually aims to build road corridors connecting the region’s countries east to west and north to south—some of which have already been built—and to improve telephone connections through the region.

“When these areas are connected, it will open up a huge market,” Maekawa said.

The three-day conference, closed to the media and general public, is at the Hotel Cambodiana through Wednesday.

Zhang urged the officials to “resolve any pending issues” in a few projects that she identified as “key result areas for the summit.” Those included:

• Rehabilitating Routes 5 and 6 between Siem Reap and Poipet;

• Construction of a road be­tween Kunming in China’s Yun­nan province and Chiang Rai in northern Thailand through Laos;

• The Mekong River Tourism Project, a $30 million program to develop tourism sites and modernize small airports in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam;

• An Agreement for the Fa­cilitation of Cross-Border Move­ment of People and Goods, which will streamline visa and customs procedures;

• Operational Procedures for Single-Stop Customs Inspection, which aims to eliminate the need for inspections on both sides of borders;

• An Agreement on Power Trade, which will establish a market for trading electricity between countries;

• The Strategic Environment Framework, which aims to strength­en environmental impact assessments of development projects and improve natural resource management.

ADB officials hope that deals on all these projects will be signed at November’s meetings, Zhang said.

Officials will prioritize the projects during this week’s meeting, Maekawa said. Zhang declined to estimate the total amount of funding the GMS projects might require in coming years.

When the GMS was formed, several of its members—which are Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, China and Burma—did not yet belong to Asean. But as Asean members mull forming a trade bloc by lowering tariffs, the GMS projects are helping to build the infrastructure necessary for free trade, ADB officials said.

“Asean is totally consistent with the GMS,” Zhang said. Both organizations are promoting “free trade, free movement of people, free movement of goods,” she added.

ADB officials say the GMS forum has helped improve trust and cooperation between its member nations, many of which have a recent history of conflict. “If I could take you into those rooms, what you’d see would be a far, far cry from the Cold War days,” said Myo Thant, an economist with the ADB’s Mekong Department.

GMS projects in Cambodia have included the renovation of the Siem Reap airport and rebuilding National Route 1 between the ferry crossing at Neak Loeung in Prey Veng province and the Viet­nam border.

The projects have not been without hitches. The Route 1 project, now scheduled for completion in June, has suffered setbacks due to floods. And the NGO Legal Aid of Cambodia has found that “many, many people living along Highway 1 have had a problem,” said Min Tith Malis, legal assistant for the NGO.

Residents displaced by the road have received little or no compensation or have been given inadequate land in exchange, she said.

Government officials say many of the displaced residents are squatters, but Legal Aid of Cam­bodia says that ADB rules dictate that displaced residents receive compensation nonetheless.

The ADB has set reducing poverty as its primary goal, but aid organizations claiming to represent the poor say it is still falling short.

“They tend to decide on projects behind closed doors with just the bank and the government, and leave out civil society and communities that would be affected,” said Kelly Brooks, policy and outreach officer for the Oxfam Mekong Initiative. “We’re pressing for more inclusion of the communities they’re supposedly trying to help.”

The ADB often pays little attention to the side effects of speeding the movement of people and goods across borders, Brooks said. For example, she said, migration speeds the spread of AIDS and other disease; new roads can be used by loggers or others seeking to exploit natural resources; and freer trade may crush small domestic producers.

Zhang said in an interview Monday that the ADB is reaching out to civil society, citing an ADB-sponsored meeting in Phnom Penh last month with NGOs throughout the region. She said “a participatory approach is re­quired” in all ADB-sponsored projects.

“The dialogue is going on,” she said.


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