Monday, August 12, 2013


Late afternoon overlooking the Mekong River
It’s late afternoon, and I’ve taken a seat on a wooden platform, high on the riverbank. The river’s waters are calm, and the slow but steady current flows by silently. The sun drops behind a cloud upriver, as it continues its descent toward distant trees.

A few Laotian couples are also present along the riverside, taking in the romantic view, sitting in pairs atop their parked motorbikes. There are no deep kisses in public here; Laotians are too conservative for that. The young lovers cuddle together, talking quietly in the late afternoon.

Soon the sun peeks out from beneath a grey cloud, and heads for the horizon. Before it does, it casts its warm yellow glow across the serene scene. Sunset on the Mekong.

I have a view of the river that's almost horizon to horizon. As always, the Mekong River is impressive. Yet here river traffic is light, with few boats to be seen. I remember the busy floating market I'd seen down in the Mekong Delta
A longboat heads upstream on the Mekong River
in Vietnam, but here there are only three small boats, each with a lone fisherman aboard. The only others out are four fishermen wading the shallows.

As one of the world’s great rivers, the mighty Mekong seems vastly underused, at least here in Vientiane. When the French colonists took over Laos, their explorers marveled at the size of the Mekong, raving at its potential for commerce. Their surveyors believed they had found a new trading route north into China, where the great river originates. That potential was never realized.

Leaving my river side perch, I walk along Quai Fa Ngum, the city’s river front road. A couple blocks on, I come across an imposing, new red roof building constructed with familiar Asian architecture. In a landscaped planter out front, red flowers are carefully arranged to spell, “MRC". These are the offices of the Mekong River Commission.

Formed by Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam, the commission was founded in 1995. According to the MRC, they are
Headquarters of Mekong River Commission in Vientiane
working, “for sustainable development”, with a vision for, “an economically prosperous, socially just and environmentally sound Mekong River Basin”. This vision has little resemblance to the current reality in Southeast Asia, especially related to the environment.

With growing populations, these countries that line the Mekong’s river banks need more and more of the great river’s water for agriculture and hydropower. There are 11 proposed dams in the area, an ongoing threat to the environment and wildlife. Given the levels of corruption in Southeast Asia, the future of the Mekong is anybody’s guess. 

World Wildlife Fund reports Irrawaddy Dolphins are at risk of being eliminated from the Mekong River. Less than 80 of these rare animals are left here. The dolphins' immune systems seem to be suffering from river contaminants. I once asked an Australian environmentalist about their chances of survival on the river. “It doesn’t look good,” he said. “The river is just too polluted.”
Decaying ex-offices of International Commission for Supervision and Control (ICSC)

A block past the MRC, the pavement turns to dirt and I find the remnants of another Laotian commission in an abandoned three story building. Back in the day, this was one of the more modern office buildings in town. Now it’s just a crumbling shell, overgrown with weeds. Despite its decrepit present condition, this was once a place of great political importance in Laos.

These were the offices of the International Commission for Supervision and Control. (ICSC) Born out of the 1954 Geneva Agreement that ended the French war in Vietnam, the ICSC was supposed to monitor and verify terms to end the conflict in Laos as well, and keep the country neutral. It was hoped this independent commission would aid with the integration of Pathet Lao rebels into the Royal Laotian Government. 

Since the conflict dragged on for two decades, what was supposed to be a short mission for the ICSC dragged on as well. Like most of the peace attempts in Southeast Asia at the time, there were good intentions, but the ICSC was over politicized, with little means of enforcement. Made up of teams from Canada, India and Poland, their monitors were rarely allowed into rebel areas to verify if the Pathet Lao were following the treaty’s terms. Often, they weren’t. As for dealing with their opposites in Vientiane, the ICSC had to deal with multiple changes in government, due to frequent coups. 

In the end, Laos was unfortunately just a pawn, and it was outside forces that determined the end of the war in Laos. When the Paris Peace Accords ended America’s war in Vietnam in 1973, a cease fire in Laos was signed less than a month later under pressure. After more agreements, communists became part of a coalition government. Soon, Vientiane’s residents woke to the bizarre sight of Pathet Lao troops patrolling the streets jointly with police of the Royal Laotian Government. (RLG)

Pathet Lao Politburo meeting to seize power in 1975 (museum photo)
What should've been a power sharing agreement between the two opposing groups was soon subverted by the Pathet Lao. No longer stuck in the jungle, the communists gradually took over the central government by orchestrating riots and demonstrations. Subverting the government from within, they gradually forced RLG ministers out of their jobs Most fled to exile.

On November 28th of 1975, Prime Minister Souvanna Phouma finally resigned. By then the Pathet Lao had already declared to the populace that Vientiane had been ‘liberated’. The reality was that individual liberties were ending. With their takeover complete and the war over, Laos became the final domino to fall in Southeast Asia.

With the conflict finished the teams of foreign monitors left for home, and the ICSC closed its doors. I look at this hollow derelict, and familiar yellow colonial paint is faded and peeling. Left to the elements and the homeless, even the doors and windows have been looted. Green grass grows on the top balcony. 

Seeing movement near the back, I notice this building isn’t totally empty. Just outside, four construction workers are taking bucket showers in their underwear. Peering up through the windows, I see more signs of life. Laborers are hauling building materials inside. It seems that this old derelict is being reborn, as they prepare to renovate.

Heading back the way I came, I pass the Mekong River Commission on my way home. These ‘Commissions’ didn’t seem to have a very successful record in Laos. The ICSC’s mission failed, and so did the chances for democracy Laos.

I sincerely hope that the Mekong River Commission is far more successful.

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