A disappointing show from ACMECS

opinion June 19, 2018 01:00

By The Nation

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Fifteen years on, the agency charged with developing three rivers has a long-term plan – and no money

The river systems nourishing Thailand are far, far too important to command any less than rigid attention from the governing bodies involved. That’s why it was so disappointing to see the Ayeyawady-Chao Phraya-Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy (ACMECS) complete its eighth summit in Bangkok last week with a five-year master integration and development plan – and yet no clear idea on how resources might be marshalled.

Established in 2003 under the Thaksin Shinawatra administration, the ACMECS had as its initial goal the creation of jobs along those three rivers to prevent people there from migrating to Thailand for more lucrative work. When Vietnam joined in 2004, the mandate was widened to address development. The scheme now covers all countries in mainland Southeast Asia.

The five countries in the Mekong basin – Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam – are all also members of other panels addressing riparian issues, from the oldest, the Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS), to the newest, the Lancang Mekong Cooperation (LMC). They too foster cooperation in the development of infrastructure. The key distinction lies with China’s role. Beijing is represented on the GMS and LMC, but not the ACMECS, where Thailand plays the lead role. In the early stages, Thailand, with its more robust economy, was also the main donor, offering assistance to the other four members for development projects. But our political upheaval drained resources and we are hardly wealthy enough now to finance all proposals.

Dislike for Thaksin similarly proved an obstacle in the past – the ACMECS was his pet project, after all. Meetings produced few notable initiatives. The website is comatose. The ACMECS at times feels all but forgotten.

Last week’s summit was just as desultory. The master plan was unveiled, complete with a project list, but when it came to identifying funding sources, there was a telling lack of clear vision.

Thailand had proposed establishing trusts and funds to finance development in the sub-region, but the idea was merely passed on to subordinates to work out the details, ostensibly before the end of the year. There could well be funding plans in place by the time the five-year plan goes into effect next year, but the fact remains that the ACMECS has been in existence for 15 years and we’re only now getting to the nub of the matter.

Thailand has also pledged to provide seed money for these trust funds, but is has not specified an amount, so there’s no guarantee it’s going to be enough to get the funding sources off the ground, let alone help launch the needed development.

And meanwhile the parameters are shifting, with China now playing a more active role in the Mekong region – supplying all necessary resources, technology and investment to the countries ready to move forward. No one these days is waiting for cash injections from Thailand. Chinese investment began pouring into the Mekong basin long before 2014 military coup in Bangkok. 

Perhaps it’s little wonder that projects listed in the ACMECS master plan, such as roads and bridges, also appear in the development schedules of the GMS and LMC. If ideas, plans and financing are essential to such efforts, then clear vision and clever strategy are more important still. It’s time for the ACMECS to get busy and for Thailand to pick up the slack.