Leaders from the Indochinese countries are gathering in Laos this week to discuss ways to enhance sub-regional cooperation under the so-called Ayeyawady-Chao Phraya-Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy (ACMECS). The cooperation effort aims to improve the wellbeing of people in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam by providing new economic opportunities and thus bridging the economic disparities within and among the member countries.
Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra will head the delegation from Thailand. The presence of the premier at this meeting should reflect the high priority that the Thai government ought to give to this initiative.
With the advent of Asean Economic Community (AEC) in 2015, ACMECS could serve as a supplementary mechanism to the goal of Asean economic integration. Some projects may, of course, be easier to start through bilateral or trilateral cooperation, such as improvements to transport links and infrastructure. But eventually, such bilateral or trilateral cooperation efforts could expand to cover region-wide projects.
ACMECS covers various development areas such as trade and investment facilitation, agricultural cooperation, industrial and energy cooperation and transport. These areas are essential to promoting desired social and economic development, by providing new infrastructure in all the Indochinese countries.
Nonetheless, apart from the infrastructure projects, there are other areas that the members should focus on, to ensure that the ACMECS will promote and enable sustainable development for all people in the region, according to the sub-regional agenda. For instance, sub-regional cooperation should promote public participation, to ensure that there is genuine support for the projects sponsored by ACMECS, especially those that will affect natural resources and traditional ways of life.
The members of ACMECS are naturally rich countries, with forests and waterways that can be transformed into economic potential such as energy production. However, the construction of infrastructure will obviously affect the environment and natural resources to varying degrees. Decision-makers and governments must therefore communicate with local people, to bring them into the discussion on development projects. Their opinions must be respected on how they want to see the future of their environments. Local people should be encouraged to provide input and their ideas should also be incorporated at the regional level.
Because most of the ACMECS members are developing nations, regional cooperation should also focus on human-resource development. This is essential to ensure that the initiative brings real benefits at an individual level.
The economic opportunities that come with ACMECS can materialise only if people have real input in, and understanding of, the projects. This means that communication between the authorities and ordinary people must be genuine and reach down to the grassroots level. Programmes must be designed to cater to the specific needs of people who share similar economic and social backgrounds, and must be relevant to each locality. The cooperation effort should lead to a practical learning process involving people with similar backgrounds and experiences.
The goal should be to help address the issue of disparities, such as uneven levels of development and uneven distribution of the benefits of development. The opening up of the emerging economies such as Laos and Myanmar, for example, should create the opportunity for all to prosper. The truth, however, is that in most cases a small group of powerful people in these emerging economies tend to reap the benefits of new opportunity, leaving the majority of people behind.
Regional cooperation should be designed to spread the opportunity to all. But this cannot be achieved if the status quo remains the same, if ordinary people are not properly equipped with knowledge and resources.
Thailand, meanwhile, can play an active role by providing technical assistance to the less-developed members of ACMECS. At the very least, the whole effort should not leave the impression among local people that their resources – human, natural or otherwise – are being exploited. Most of all, ACMECS can only be really successful if people-to-people contacts are developed to the full. The most sustainable development comes only from a solid foundation and trust between people.