Why Wars & Waterways?
I. Invasions and Cultural Exchanges through Waterways:
“So great was the impact of Indian culture upon Southeast Asia that the historian George Coedès goes so far as to term the states, which developed under its influence as les etats hindouise—Hinduized states of Southeast Asia” (Trivedi, 53).
One of the most interesting phenomena in history is the spread of Indian culture to Indonesia, and Southeast Asia, in general, which was mostly based on trade and diplomatic excursions until the political invasions by Rajendra Chola I, ruler of the Chola dynasty, based in modern Tamil Nadu, India, who invaded the Indianized Indonesian state of Srivijaya (650–1377 CE) in 1025 CE.
Tamil, rather than Malay power, predominated in maritime Southeast Asia for two centuries subsequent to this. The decline of Srivijaya, based on the island of Sumatra, led eventually to the rise in maritime Southeast Asia of the Hindu empire of Majapahit (1293-1527 CE), based on Java.
Yet, Indian and Hindu influence had already spread across Southeast Asia for at least a millennium before the Chola invasion. From the start of the common era, Indian traders, in search of exotic spices to trade with Arabs and Romans, had begun to explore the region. And the use of Sanskrit to keep records of such forays reached modern Cambodia and southern Vietnam by the first or second century of the common era.
The oldest inscription in a Southeast Asian language was found in what used to be the Cham kingdom in modern south-central Vietnam, and succeeds a series of Sanskrit inscriptions, at Đông Yên Châu that date back to the fourth century. South of the Cham kingdom was the Khmer civilization of Funan (as the Chinese knew it), an “entrepôt polity [built] on a millennium of trading contacts with regions in India.”
From here Indian and Southeast Asian traders went both ways, and to China. The ships of this region were advanced, ocean-going ships, described by observers as “nearly one hundred Chinese feet long and six across ‘with their bows and sterns like fishes. ... The large ones carry a hundred men, each man carrying a long or short oar, or a boat-pole.’ Their hulls were made of layered wooden planks, caulked with tree resin and sewn together with twine made from coconut husk” (qtd. in Pillalamarri)
Southeast Asia came under Indian influence from about 300 BC until around the 15th century, and Hinduism and Buddhism thrived and became the main religions in many countries in Southeast Asia. Kingdoms on the south east coast of the Indian subcontinent established trade, cultural and political relations with Southeast Asian kingdoms in Burma, Thailand, Indonesia, Malay Peninsula, Cambodia and Vietnam and the rich cultural exchanges are still evident in the art, culture, and architecture of the countries we will visit.
An illustration depicting the early capital of Vyadhapura in the Funan empire.
II. Water Wars Over a valued Asset:
Laos dam collapse: Hundreds missing after flash floods hit villages - BBC News
In 2018, a dam under construction in Laos collapsed following heavy monsoon rains, sending a deluge of water down the already swollen, swirling Sekong. The floodwaters, villagers were told, could reach as far as Stung Treng, the provincial capital in northern Cambodia where the Sekong joins the even larger Mekong River. Closer to the collapsed Lao Dam, part of a hydropower project on the Xepian River, a tributary of the Sekong, the destruction was far more extensive. Within Laos, several villages downstream from the collapsed dam were submerged, leaving at least 39 people dead and up to 100 went missing, as well as thousands of people homeless.
As Stefan Levgren, writing for The National Geographic Magazine, reports:
"The disaster has brought into focus the ambitious agenda of Laos, one of the region’s poorest countries, to turn itself into the 'battery of Southeast Asia' by building dozens of hydroelectric dams on the Mekong River and its tributaries and selling power to neighboring countries. Last year, Laos had 46 such power plants operating and 54 more planned or under construction."
Southeast Asia's electricity shortage makes hydropower a plentiful and cheap option. Proponents regard the Lao dam scheme as an environmentally friendly solution that can reduce poverty in the region. But many experts have claimed that at least some of the dams may be poorly constructed and could fail in a way similar to what happened in July 2018. A prior incident in which another dam under construction in northern Laos also broke after heavy rains has raised fears that more extreme weather events due to climate change can adversely affect such structures and cost many more lives, apart from flooding valuable agricultural land. Dams are known to threaten fish populations, cause major soil erosion and alter natural river hydrology, jeopardizing the future of the entire lower Mekong River basin as a life-sustaining ecosystem.
The Mekong River originates in the Tibetan highlands, then meanders through China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam before flowing into the South China Sea. It is home to the world’s largest inland fishery, with an estimated 25 percent of the global freshwater catch. Sixty million people make an income from fishing, as well as from agricultural produce grown along the Mekong River and its tributaries.
China first began damming the Mekong in the early 1990s, but the main river has remained unchecked chiefly due to regional cooperation between the four member nations of the Mekong River Commission, which was established in 1995.
Growing energy demands and the affordability of hydropower, however, caused land-locked Laos to decide more than a decade ago that it would build nine dams on the main river, as well as dozens of new dams on Mekong tributaries. Cambodia and Vietnam soon launched their own dam projects.
Many of the tributary dams are now functional, and Laos exported close to $1 billion of electricity in 2017. The first of the new projects on the main stem of the Mekong—the Xayaburi dam in northern Laos—will go online next year.
Environmental Impact Reports done on behalf of dam developers in Laos have routinely downplayed any environmental damage the dams will cause. But independent researchers say the reports do not take into account the transboundary effects and warn that the impact on fish populations in the entire Mekong River basin could be devastating.
Dams may block migrating fish from reaching crucial spawning habitat. They also inevitably alter the hydrology of the river system, which in the case of the Mekong has been fine-tuned over millennia to accommodate one of the most diverse assemblages of fish species anywhere in the world.
“Fish in the Mekong have strongly adapted to the flow regimes of the river,” said Peng Bun Ngor, a fish ecologist with the Cambodian Fisheries Administration. “If the fish cannot adapt to the new system, they’re gone.”
The mighty Mekong, flowing for 4,630 km through the heart of Southeast Asia, is in deep crisis. The delta in Vietnam is both shrinking and sinking.
The loss of nutrient-rich sediment is wrecking havoc on the delta region. All large dams trap sediment and deprive the downstream areas of vital nutrients. Vietnam is suffering from huge sediment loss, running at 50 percent less than the regular flow. Rampant sand-mining in Cambodia and Vietnam has also aggravated the delta’s acute sediment shortage.
The miraculous but fragile ecosystem that connects the Four Thousand Islands in Laos, Tonle Sap in Cambodia, and the delta in Vietnam is directly threatened by these two dams – the Don Sahong and the Xayaburi (in addition to all the damage done by six Chinese dams upstream from Laos). Now a third dam at Pak Beng has been announced by the Lao government.
WWF’s lead coordinator for Water and Energy Security in the Greater Mekong, Marc Goichot, sees the delta as crucial to Vietnam’s economic future. “It produces 50 percent of the country’s staple food crops and 90 percent of its rice exports. It is one of the most productive and densely populated areas of Vietnam, home to 18 million people. Vietnam cannot lose the delta.”
But right now Vietnam is losing it. The delta is shrinking and unless there is a major policy turnaround on the Mekong, scientists in Can Tho have warned that 27 percent of its GDP, furnished by the delta, could evaporate during the next 20 years.
What's more, China is building a series of hydropower dams on the Mekong, which analysts say will produce needed electricity while posing major threats to the environment — and will further expand its control in the region.
NPR recently reported along the Mekong River in Southeast Asian hot spots where China's expansion is already being felt and, in many cases, feared.
"The control of both the South China Sea and the Mekong will strategically sandwich mainland Southeast Asia," Brennan says. "Beijing's control of Southeast Asian rivers is the other half of the so-called salami-slicing strategy in the region."
He is referring to China's approach to gradually reclaim and build on reefs in contested waters of the South China Sea. The United States and its allies are pressing their claim to freedom of navigation in the disputed waters near China's newly constructed islands.
China has a natural advantage on the Mekong. The river starts on the Tibetan Plateau in China — in Tibet, it's called the Dzachu; in other parts of China, the Lancang Jiang — and runs nearly 3,000 miles through five Southeast Asian countries before emptying into the South China Sea.
"Unlike the South China Sea, the Mekong space does not have really other major regional powers involved," says Thitinan Pongsudhirak of Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University. "So China does not have to contend with the United States like in the South China Sea or Australia or India and all the other countries."
For over a decade, China has been building hydropower stations on its stretch of the Mekong River. Ten dams have gone up so far, with several more planned, according to the Stimson Center, a nonprofit think tank in Washington, D.C.
"This is a situation I feel can degenerate," says Thitinan, who has been studying the Mekong and China's growing influence along it.
"If more dams are built and water is more scarce, then ... China can use its upstream position as a leverage and even as a coercive instrument," he says.
Several hundred miles downriver, Cambodia's capital Phnom Penh is undergoing a building frenzy largely fueled by Chinese money, public and private. And the port city of Sihanoukville farther south, many Cambodians say, is being transformed into an almost completely Chinese city.
Kim Heang, the CEO of Khmer Real Estate Co. in Phnom Penh, says the Chinese "feel safe to invest in Cambodia."
"When Chinese come here, they have protection" he says. "Nobody can do something wrong to Chinese investors because they have support of Chinese government."
When asked whether Cambodians benefit too, he answers "yes and no."
"The people who come to invest will get the benefit, of course," he says. Rich Cambodians who sell them property will, too. But while some ordinary locals can get service jobs related to the investments, he explains, it isn't the kind of work that lets them provide their family with a good future. As for the majority of Cambodians, he adds, "They are not happy."
One certain Cambodian beneficiary is clear: Prime Minister Hun Sen. China's backing has helped embolden him to eviscerate the Cambodian political opposition, crack down on independent media, intimidate civil society groups and extend his 33-year-long rule. When the United States and the European Union withdrew funding for Cambodia's election held in July, China stepped in to provide $20 million for voting equipment. All that made it easier for Hun Sen and his ruling party to sweep the vote, widely condemned as a "fraud" by human rights groups and foreign governments.
But the government's reliance on China's largesse, critics say, leaves Cambodia at risk.
"At this stage, the fact that Cambodia has been shifting away from the West makes Cambodia almost completely relying on China for backing — domestically, internationally and economically," says Virak Ou, head of the Phnom Penh think tank Future Forum. "Which means we are beholden to China."
Fawthrop, Tom. "Killing the Mekong, Dam by Dam." The Diplomat. 28 May 2016
Hall, Daniel George Edward. (1981). A History of Southeast Asia (4th ed.). London:
Macmillan (first published in 1955).
Lovgren, Stefan. "Southeast Asia May Be Building Too Many Dams Too Fast." National
Geographic Online. 23 Aug. 2018 <https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2018/08/news- southeast-asia- building-dams-floods-climate-change/>
Pillalamarri, Akhilesh. How India Influenced Southeast Asian Civilization. The Diplomat. 29
Sept. 2018 <https://thediplomat.com/2018/10/how-india-influenced-southeast-asian- civilization/>
Sullivan, Michael. China Reshapes The Vital Mekong River To Power Its Expansion. NPR.
Weekend Edition Saturday. 6 Oct. 2018 <https://www.npr.org/2018/10/06/639280566/china-reshapes- the-vital-mekong-river- to-power-its-expansion>
Trivedi, Sonu. “Early Indian Influence in Southeast Asia: Revitalizing Partnership between
India and Indonesia.” India Quarterly, vol. 66, no. 1, Mar. 2010, pp. 51–67.