As a new year dawns, the editors at Children of the Mekong would like to give readers a better idea of the situation in the seven countries where our association is active. This is a quick overview of the countries that are so important for us, their prospects and outlook.
1 – Thailand: Is a coup d’état imminent?
It was the straw that broke the camel’s back in Bangkok. The legislation granting amnesty to Thaksin Shinawatra, passed at the end of 2013, crystallized the Thai people’s exasperation. A growing share of public opinion no longer wants the country to be led by Yingluck Shinawatra, sister of Thaksin, who headed the government from 2001 to 2006. He fled the country in 2006 following a military coup and was convicted in absentia to two years’ prison for embezzlement. While anti-Shinawatra mobilization attempts in 2011 and 2012 were unsuccessful, the recent legislation opened a Pandora’s box. The dice have now been cast for a government already struggling to gain credibility, although it can still rely on the “Reds” for support. When he was Prime Minister, Thaksin had implemented a policy that granted very substantial material benefits (social security, loan assistance fund) for farmers. Today, this semi-urbanized class no longer has anything in common with predecessors of 40 years ago and aspires to a life similar to that of the urban classes.
The opposition “Yellows” essentially consist of what is termed the “traditional elite”: public servants, bureaucrats, many from economic circles. They can also rely on the ultimate support of the army which, for the moment, is standing by the existing government but could switch sides at any moment. Paradoxically, it is also filled with people from fairly modest circumstances who now feel genuine revulsion verging on hatred for the Shinawatra family. Beyond these protests, the rift now emerging within the Thai people itself might very well reflect a deeper social malaise.
2 – Cambodia: Challenges aplenty
On Friday 3 January, thousands of workers blocked access to their plant in Phnom Penh. Some, armed with sticks, stones and Molotov cocktails, opposed public security forces. After firing the usual warning shots, the police finally took aim, killing four and wounding 27. This drama occurred as protests by textile workers backed opposition demands of the past several months that Prime Minister Hun Sen step down and call new elections, amidst claims that the July vote was tainted by massive fraud. In November 2013, these protests had already resulted in the fatal shooting of one woman. These massive public protests were denouncing horrendous working conditions (many workers fainting, inadequate food, and overwork) in the textile industry. This crucial sector of Cambodia’s economy now employs 650,000 workers, including 400,000 for companies under contract to major international brands. Core demands include raising the minimum wage to US$160 a month in 2014, from the current US$80. In mid-January, despite barricades and massive protests, Cheam Yeap, member of the National Assembly for the prime minister’s party, downplayed the scope of the rebellion in Cambodia. Clashes between workers and opponents are expected to continue for a long time to come…
3 – Myanmar (Burma): A genuine opening?
Myanmar appears to have taken a new step on the road to reform and economic openness, specifically by launching a broad program of measures designed to attract foreign capital. On 31 December 2013, Rangoon announced that there were “no longer any political prisoners.” Although doubts persist about the accuracy of these claims, the amnesty granted is directly related to the reforms started after President Thein Sein dissolved the junta in March 2011. Only one major question remains: what is the real nature of the change begun? Is this genuine democratization or just a purely economic strategy? While this is a signal sent to Burmese society, it is targeted at least as much at economic players who have been eying this country, which has extraordinary potential. A rapid economic catch-up phase already appears to be underway. A fivefold increase in Direct Foreign Investment was also posted in 2013, from US$300 million in 2012 to US$1.5 billion in 2013; the beginnings of economic development promise to be impressive.
4 – Philippines: In the wake of Haiyan, schools now reopening
In early January, three months after the ravages of typhoon Haiyan, schools in the central Philippines have finally reopened. On Leyte Island, 80 per cent of schools were destroyed. Although many students are absent, dead or evacuated, the return to school will enable hundreds of thousands of children to return to a more normal life and will help struggling families get back to work so they can survive. However, much work remains and many reconstruction programs still have to be implemented. For the moment, classes are often held in temporary structures: prefabricated units, under tarpaulins, etc. In the coastal village of San Roque, near Tacloban on Leyte Island, children returned to class under a large white tent a few metres from the shore. “Only 50 per cent of our thousand students have returned to school,” laments Principal Evelyn Encina.
5 – Laos: Massive, silent deforestation
Laos is slowly gaining the unenviable reputation of the country undergoing the greatest deforestation. This is a drama unfolding as the primary forests in this region world are increasingly threatened. Leading the way is the southern province of Attapeu. Between the 1940s and the early years of this century, international experts estimate that the country’s forest coverage has declined from 70 to 41 percent. Some specialists even claim that the areas still with the densest forests now cover barely 3 per cent of total land area. Despite the ban on raw timber exports since 2004 and imposition of a harvest quota system in clearly delineated areas, there is every indication that these quotas are ignored and that contractors violate regulations at will. Illegal deforestation appears to be continuing unabated. There are many causes, but one of the leading problems is collusion between companies controlled by the military on both sides of the border between Laos and Vietnam. Deforestation facilitates standardization of agriculture and vast rubber tree plantations. This government choice has dramatic consequences, leading to eviction of many workers from the land, who are now forced to survive by providing plantation owners with a ready source of cheap labour.
6 – Yunnan: All-consuming flames
On Saturday 11 January, the thousand-year-old Tibetan village of Dukezong in China’s Yunnan province was ravaged by a massive fire that damaged more than 240 homes. This village of some 700 homes covering 16 square kilometres was founded more than 1,300 years ago. Dukezong was considered one of the Tibetan communities with the best preserved architectural heritage and traditional houses. The fire spread quickly in the middle of the night, through Dukezong’s streets lined primarily with traditional Tibetan wood buildings. More than 1,000 firefighters and volunteers were called out, but the fire was not brought under control until the next morning, nine hours later. More than 2,600 residents were evacuated. The flames also destroyed Tibetan antiques and works of art. The Zhongguo Xinwen wang [China News] news site reported that economic losses could reach more than 100 million yuan (€12 million ). While investigations into the cause of the fire continue, investigators have ruled out arson.
7 – Vietnam: The focus is on health.
With a population of almost 90 million, Vietnam now has more than 62.3 million recipients of health insurance or social insurance. This revealing number shows the clear progress made in the country’s healthcare system. Today, 10.6 million Vietnamese residents are required to have social and medical insurance, and 51.5 million are registered for health insurance.
These numbers reflect significant economic growth and progress in health. Vietnamese now use precautions and willingly invest in better health care. However, all these encouraging statistics must not hide the fact that while this insurance provides contributors with access to a broader range of health care, it generally does not cover serious illnesses. In hygiene proper, the process is underway but still provides no viable alternative to rampant corruption in all healthcare centres. If a person is hospitalized, a family member must sleep next to the patient, resulting in the loss of two incomes. This is a hard challenge in an institution that charges for the bed, drugs and many procedures. In Vietnam, medical care for the poor remains a recurring and still unresolved problem.
DR: Antoine Besson
Matthieu Delaunay, journalist at the “Enfants du Mekong” magazine.