Mekong bridge at Chiang Khong

The upcoming 4th Thai-Lao friendship bridge between Chiang Khong and Houay Xay will form the remaining crucial link of the Asian Highway 3, connecting Bangkok to Kunming, a project highly anticipated in the Greater Mekong Subregion’s (GMS) development. Unlike the previous bridges between Thailand and Laos, this bridge not only serves two towns but incorporates three countries, with China coming into the picture by funding half the cost of the bridge. The bridge is expected to be completed between late 2012 to mid-2013.

The bridge represents a mixture of globalisation and regionalisation occurring together, promising capital gains for investors and increased economic opportunities for the border towns of Chiang Khong and Houay Xay. In addition, Chiang Khong is marketed as the ‘Gateway to Indochina’ by the Thai government, leveraging on the proposed bridge to elevate its status as a crucial border town in GMS.

Local perceptions of the bridge are investigated in relation to the two border towns’ rapid development and GMS’s economic outreach (see Lin and Grundy-Warr, 2012). There are several concerns from Chiang Khong and Houay Xay that suggest the bridge will not benefit the people living in the two border towns much. Thai people interviewed expressed that most of the surrounding land near the bridge have been bought by Bangkok-based people and Chinese investors via their Thai partners. Some of the lands bought were former farmlands of the Thai villagers. The compensation given to them was around 300,000-400,000 per rai (about 1.6km²) but the value of the near the bridge is close to a million baht and is still rising because of prospective investments arising from the completion of the bridge. A local at Chiang Khong described this land sale issue as troubling, and termed it as Pattanna GMS, not Pattanna Chiang Khong, where people in distant Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Yunnan province of China would benefit more. In Houay Xay, villagers also indicated insufficient compensation on their farmland sales. A Lao boat driver also commented that future developments taking place such as a planned casino and a golf resort will be too expensive for locals to experience.

The Chinese factor is another worrying factor. Thai traders stress the fact that Chinese goods will arrive in Thailand faster after the bridge’s completion, thus flooding the local markets, and may provide further unfair competition to local products. Laotians, on the other hand, perceive that Houay Xay could turn into the next Boten, a border town at the Lao-Chinese border, where Chinese traders and workers outnumber locals.

The views gathered on the ground may not be wholly representative, but it suggests that perhaps the Thai and Lao governments should look into how to integrate small businesses of the people at the borderlands together with the bigger projects. Taking heed of the ‘voices’ from the borders may be beneficial in the long run to reduce uneven development as GMS projects tend to connect major cities with economic growth bridges/corridors with little consideration of the places that those infrastructures are built on.

References

Lin, Shaun and Grundy-Warr, Carl (2012) One bridge, two towns and three countries: anticipatory geopolitics in the Greater Mekong Sub-region. Geopolitics, DOI:10.1080/14650045.2012.662556.

Shaun Lin works at the Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources and Security (ANCORS), University of Wollongong.

About Shaun Lin, Guest Contributor