Leaders of Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand agreed on a common vision to push for the region’s true potential while at the Asean World Economic Forum in Vietnam this week.
Prime Minister Hun Sen said during his closing remarks that each country in the region has its own share of problems and must address it their own way.
“Each of our countries has our own unique problems, along with unique diversity and competitive advantages,” Mr Hun Sen said. “We should be left to resolve our own differences through multilateral discussions rather than being forced into making decisions which may be popular elsewhere, but do not reflect regional context and diversity.”
“We cannot and should not have unfair double standards being enforced on us by some western countries with regards to the issues of democracy and human rights. It needs to be noted that democracy and human rights are still better in Cambodia than in other countries in the Mekong region,” he added. “But Cambodia has been treated with more punitive measures in forms of pressures and sanctions from the west, and this is simply unfair and unjust.”
Earlier, heads of state from the Mekong region countries such as Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and Myanmar, affirmed their commitment to a shared vision of peace and prosperity.
Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc said that countries in the Mekong region share history and culture.
Mr Nguyen said that the world is changing and that countries in the region must be able to adapt.
“We can no longer depend on just natural resources. We must reform, innovate and tap into our own creativity,” he said. “New forms of connectivity will help Mekong countries connect in a more dynamic way and create an economic driver for our countries.”
Mr Nguyen said that Asean’s principle of unity in diversity is also clearly reflected in the Mekong framework.
“We have differences in our starting points and history, but our common vision is peace, stability and integration,” he said.
“In Thailand, we believe water is the essence of life, so the Mekong river is the main bloodline for our five nations,” said Praying Juntong, Thailand’s Deputy Prime Minister and Justice Minister. “It will bring a beautiful environment and rich resources, creating good livelihoods and contribute to better sustainability.”
Combined, the Mekong countries amount to $800 billion in GDP. If they were one country, the region would be the sixth biggest country in the world and a member of G20, Mr Praying said.
“Yet despite its significant potential, inter-Mekong trade remains low at just eight percent,” he said. “There are concerns, such as the export of rice, that could create fierce competition among the five countries.”
Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar State Counsellor, said that the region should focus on working together to compete, as opposed to competing with each other.
“I think we could work together and not just make this a commercial region, but a region that could be a lesson on how we make our complementarities strong,” Ms Suu Kyi said. “By keeping things together, and even making our competition healthy, we will progress.”
Lao Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith said that the Mekong river is the bloodline that should both be utilised and protected.
“We should protect the river and think about sustainability where all member countries band together to protect the environment and develop the river together,” Mr Thongloun said. “We should not think that one country is trying to use the river for its own interests only.”
He said that the recent collapse of the Xe-Pian Xe-Nammoy dam serves as a lesson for Laos.
Mr Thongloun said that the officials in the country will carefully consider the planning and designing of future hydro power projects as the country’s government continues to push to become the “power battery of Asean”.
Mr Hun Sen said that in order to enable better connectivity, there need to be innovative solutions to face future challenges.
“We have to catch up. I see that for our countries, the important thing is connectivity in order to guarantee that every country here in the Mekong region gets together in a convenient way,” he said.
He added that in the event of natural disasters such as floods, Mekong region countries should have agreements in place to deal with cross-border disaster management, encompassing telecommunications and emergency evacuation plans.
“There are areas within our country where we cannot quickly access or provide quick relief to flood victims. Hence why we need to call on humanitarian assistance from our partners in the region to not only rescue our people, but also to care for them,” he said. “This will not be possible without agreements set in place, nor would it be possible without talks.”
Mr Nguyen said that Mr Hun Sen’s vision towards a united Mekong region is underway.
Ms Suu Kyi said that the biggest challenge is ensuring an increase in connectivity between the five countries.
“Is the fourth Industrial Revolution going to bring us closer, or drive us further apart?” she says. “I am confident that the five countries will take the path that brings us closer together.”