Further Opening of Borders, Poverty Reduction Key Topics at Mekong Ministers' Meeting


Asian Development Bank

January 11, 2000

A further opening-up of borders and a new emphasis on poverty reduction will top the agenda at the 9th Ministerial Meeting of the Greater Mekong Subregion Economic Cooperation Program to be held at the Asian Development Bank headquarters, Manila, on 13 January 2000.

Ministers from the six countries bordering the Mekong River - People's Republic of China (Yunnan Province), Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Thailand, and Viet Nam - will press for further cross-border liberalization following the precedent-setting accord signed in Vientiane on 26 November 1999. The agreement, inked by the governments of Lao PDR, Thailand and Viet Nam, eases the cross-border movement of goods and people on the East-West Corridor linking Thailand, Lao PDR and Viet Nam.

Cutting red tape and other barriers will do as much to spur trade and investment as the joint projects being promoted under the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) initiative in transport and communications, energy, health and education, environment and tourism.

Participants will also discuss concrete actions to stop environmental degradation - especially deforestation - illegal logging and trafficking in wildlife, drugs and prostitution. The ADB is already working towards this with other institutions such as the UN Drug Control Program.

The national delegations will be headed by H.E. Chhay Than, Minister of Planning, Cambodia; H.E. Jin Liqun, Vice Minister, Ministry of Finance, People's Republic of China; H.E. Phao Bounnaphol, Minister of Communication, Transport, Post and Construction, Lao PDR; H. E. Brig. Gen. David Abel, Minister, Office of the State Peace and Development Council, Myanmar; H. E. Dr Supachai Panitchpakdi, Deputy Prime Minister, Thailand; and H.E. Tran Xuan Gia, Minister of Planning and Investment, Viet Nam.

Although details still have to be worked out, the East West Corridor cross-border agreement was a milestone in spelling out principles and directions such as non-discriminatory treatment and transparency of regulations and procedures. As Toru Tatara, head of the ADB's GMS unit, notes: "The agreement adds a new dimension to the GMS program and augurs well for significant initiatives in other sectors." Now a timetable needs to be discussed for extending the agreement to the whole GMS subregion. At the same time, countries are looking at ways to ease trade restrictions and simplify customs procedures. Such developments will underpin the infrastructure sector which, in turn, will drive growth.

The GMS countries and the ADB and other donors also want to see key road projects fast-tracked to accelerate the recovery of the subregion from the Asian economic crisis. Many of the civil works associated with the US$350 million, 400 km East West Corridor project linking northern Thailand, central Lao PDR and eastern Viet Nam, are due for completion at the end of 2003. The East West Corridor is expected to see container traffic double to 1.6 million metric tons by 2000 and double again by 2010. The main commodities moving between the three countries are construction materials, fuel, timber and wood products, machinery and equipment, foodstuff, textiles, marble and livestock.

Ministers are also expected to call for fast-tracking of the North-South Corridor joining Chiang Rai in northern Thailand, Lao PDR and Kunming in Yunnan Province, PRC. This project is expected to result in significant expansion of trade between PRC and Southeast Asia.

Looking further ahead, Ministers will also discuss progress on building "economic corridors" along the major highways. The meeting will determine ways in which GS countries can coordinate investment policies and incentives to encourage private sector enterprise along these transport corridors..

New initiatives for collaborating in poverty reduction and environmental protection will also be discussed, including ways in which governments can work together for more effective management of natural resources. For example, the GMS program includes projects to address poverty reduction and environmental management in remote GMS watersheds; health and education needs of ethnic minorities; and the protection and management of critical watersheds in the Lower Mekong Basin.

One prevailing problem is that hill tribes, especially in PRC's Yunnan Province, Cambodia, Lao PDR and Viet Nam, subsist through slash-and-burn agriculture and cut trees for fuelwood. Such practices erode valuable watersheds. "We need to persuade hill communities that it's in their best interests to conserve rather than exploit natural resources by encouraging community participation in ventures such as eco-tourism. They can discourage poachers and illegal loggers and operate ecologically sound tourist facilities," says Warren Evans, manager of the ADB's Environment Division. "We also need to identify and develop other sustainable use of resources. For example, work is being done in Yunnan to show small-scale farmers the opportunities of breeding and cultivating medicinal and other high-value crops outside the protected areas from which they originate."

Participants will also discuss agriculture as the key to developing economic corridors. "Agriculture has considerable potential for collaboration in fields such as extension services and seed adaption, especially in the border areas, and it is the lifeblood for up to 80 percent of the GMS population," notes David Husband, an ADB consultant economist on the GMS program.

Also under discussion will be joint ways to improve telecommunications linkages, share energy resources, enhance health and education services, increase labor market mobility and promote tourism.

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