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Chavalit urges reef plan review

Blasting could upset boundary with Laos

Post reporters, July 19, 2002 

The cabinet screening committee yesterday called for a review of the four-nation plan to clear reefs in the Mekong river.

Deputy Prime Minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, who chairs the panel, said the unsettled water boundary between Thailand and Laos could cause problems if the project went ahead as planned.

``If some reefs are to be removed, the Thai borderline (in the river) will be affected,'' said Gen Chavalit.

The needs of all countries sharing the river, including downstream countries Cambodia and Vietnam, should be considered, he said.

The river forms about 1,100 kilometres of the border between Thailand and Laos. The river boundary has not yet been defined.

In January cabinet backed a plan to blast rocks in the river, to clear the way for bigger ships weighing up to 500 tonnes to cruise the Mekong from southern China to northern Thailand and northern Laos.

Under the agreement, Thailand has to clear reefs between Chiang Khong and Chiang Saen districts in Chiang Rai province.

Cabinet later asked the Defence Ministry to study the plan. The ministry would hold talks with the Transport and Communications Ministry, the main agency responsible for the scheme, before sending proposed alternatives to cabinet.

The project is supposed to boost trade and tourism between the four nations. Thai officials and traders say the dredging plan could boost Thai exports to China.

The blasting plan is unpopular with environmentalists and fishermen in the northern province who say it will damage the ecological system.

Chainarong Sretthachau, director of the Southeast Asia Rivers Networks, welcomed the committee's decision to take another look, saying the project would harm the river and affect villagers who relied on the Mekong for a living.

The Chiang Mai-based NGO, which has been campaigning against the reef blasting plan, said its protests would carry on.

The group was seeking support from other environmental groups in Thailand to send a protest letter to the transport ministers of the four countries and their embassies in Bangkok within weeks.

A Lao diplomat in Bangkok said Vientiane did not oppose dredging and blasting the reefs, but said the Thai government should tackle internal splits on the project.

Laos had already agreed with Thailand, Burma and China to improve the river channel, he said.


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