A substantial share of foreign direct investments have been directed towards extractive resources and their infrastructures in Mainland Southeast Asia. This Regional Social and Cultural Studies (RSCS) workshop examined issues concerning resource extraction and commodification in the region, the stakeholders involved, and their effect on local economies.
REGIONAL SOCIAL AND CULTURAL STUDIES PROGRAMME
Friday, 6 March 2020 – The workshop brought together researchers from Southeast Asia and beyond to discuss the recent trends and issues surrounding resource extraction and commodification in Mainland Southeast Asia. Dr Oliver Tappe and Dr Benjamin Loh, Visiting Fellow and Senior Fellow respectively at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, started the workshop by noting that a lot of interest has been on the rise of China and its reach. In particular, Chinese capital, labour and influence on countries in the region have profound consequences on issues like national sovereignty, social cohesion, the environment, and on livelihoods. Such issues have been unfolding in different ways, and have drawn high levels of media attention and captured public imagination.
In particular, Dr Oliver Tappe highlighted the even greater amount of Chinese investments that have entered the region since the commencement of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). He argued that ‘resource frontiers’ has been a problematic term laden with ideological connotations of external civilizational influences and he invited workshop participants and the audience to think about how recent exchanges, appropriations and processes involving Chinese capital can help to explain encounters with Mainland Southeast Asia’s ‘frontiers’ and the hunger for natural resources.
The first panel focused on mining frontiers in Myanmar and Laos, and was moderated by Dr Nyi Nyi Kyaw, Visiting Fellow at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. Dr Diane Tang-Lee, a Senior Programme Officer at the International Council on Mining and Metals in the United Kingdom, began by making a case for the involvement of social movements to ensure the success of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives, as demonstrated in a few programs launched by Wanbao Mining in Myanmar. Dr Su Yin Htun, Associate Professor of Law at the University of Mandalay, then gave details on the Letpadaungtaung Copper Mine Project, revealing that the local people have struggled with social, environmental and human rights issues. She maintained that the responsibility to implement the sustainable strategies fall on local and state governments.
Dr Tappe was the third panellist. In his presentation, he discussed the coexistence of artisanal and industrial mining in the Nam Paten Valley in Laos. Dr Tappe called for proper enforcement of environmental protection and land regulations measures to protect miner-peasant livelihoods. Dr Oulavanh Keovilignavong, a researcher from the International Water Management Institute in Vientiane, concurred with Dr Tappe and he observed that local authorities in Laos lacked the authority to effectively manage the negative impact of mining projects.
The second session focused on water as a contested natural resource, with Dr Lee Poh Onn, Senior Fellow at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, as moderator. Focusing on Chiang Khong district in Thailand, Dr Carl Middleton, Director of the Centre for Social Development Studies in Chulalongkorn University, shared his belief that resource politics over the Mekong is not solely about divergent interests but, more pertinently, about contestations over the very meaning of the river as well. Mr Paul-David Lutz, a doctoral candidate at the Department of Anthropology in the University of Sydney, also demonstrated how his anthropological research parallels Dr Middleton’s belief. At a dam site constructed along the Nam Ou river, which is a tributary of the Mekong, Mr Lutz elaborated on how the construction has affected the Sanjing, a local community in the vicinity. Based on their cosmological beliefs, the locals morally evaluate the project and more broadly, China’s overall presence in the area as well.
The final speaker for the session was Dr Thong Anh Tran, a Research Fellow at the Asia Research Institute. He detailed the key drivers of environmental change in the Vietnamese Mekong Delta (VMD), the consequences they have brought on the floodplain and coastal areas, and the institutional responses to these challenges. He said that there is a need to raise transboundary environmental concerns to the national and regional level to protect the ‘environmental integrity’ of the VMD.
The third session hosted four presentations on cash crops, trade and territorialisation in Mainland Southeast Asia, and was moderated by Dr Loh. The four panellists spoke about their research on Chinese demand for resources from the frontier regions. The session began with Dr Simon Rowedder, a Postdoctoral Fellow at the National University of Singapore, and his examination of the increased Chinese demand for tropical fruits grown in Thailand, particularly for durian. Meanwhile, Dr Yos Santasombat, Professor of Anthropology at Chiang Mai University, dissected the situation in Laotian banana plantations. Both speakers talked about the tensions between local cultivators and Chinese venture capitalists.
Dr Dominik Mierzejewski, Associate Professor at the Centre for Asian Affairs in Poland, shifted the discussion to currency trading in mainland Southeast Asia. He explored the challenges of cross-border governance and the internationalisation of the Renminbi (RMB), and further promoted the role of Yunnan as an intermediary between Beijing and the region, acting as an agent for BRI projects. Dr Chheang Vannarith, the President of the Asian Vision Institute in Phnom Penh, rounded up the session by specifying the consequences of Chinese investment in Cambodia. Using Sihanoukville as a case study, he argued that due to a lack of regulations and poor institutional capacity, Cambodia has been vulnerable to the unscrupulous practices of a few Chinese investors. Nevertheless, the Cambodian government has decided to intervene by rolling out a central masterplan to coordinate investment into the country.
The one-day workshop concluded with a discussion amongst workshop participants on potential solutions and the potential pathways to address the various issues and challenges raised during the presentations. They called for a more nuanced assessment of the merits and consequences of Chinese capital in Southeast Asia when examining issues of resource extraction and livelihood transformations. The workshop drew an audience comprising of scholars, diplomats, students and members of the public.