Cambodia Sleeps With the Fishes

Southeast Asian countries were teaming up against China -- now they're at each other's throats over water, dams, and fish.

Vietnam and other Southeast Asian countries are spooked these days by China's aggressive behavior. But the real threat to Vietnam's future may come from a different communist neighbor.

Ambitious plans for hydroelectric development in the region, especially by Laos, pose a real danger to the food supply of Vietnam and Cambodia. Upstream dams will imperil the fish stocks that provide the vast majority of Cambodia's protein and could also denude the Mekong River of the silt Vietnam needs for its rice basket. Laos's drive to become the "battery of Southeast Asia" is producing plenty of sparks, but not the right kind.

Diplomatic tension over the dams -- as well as their effect on fisheries and agriculture in a river basin that is home to more than 60 million people -- threatens to drive Southeast Asian countries apart right as they are trying to present a common face toward China's increasingly brazen behavior in claiming parts of the South China Sea for itself.

"These things are really torquing regional relations," said Rich Cronin, director of the Southeast Asia program at the Stimson Center. Although the dispute probably won't lead to armed conflict, he said, "it sure could be the end of regional cooperation on a lot of issues."

The whole region is caught in a hydropower frenzy, thanks in part to China's plans to build multiple big dams far upstream. Laos is building several of its own on the Mekong to generate electricity -- for export. That includes the Don Sahong project, right near the Laos-Cambodia border, and the much bigger Xayaburi dam further upstream. The country of slightly more than 6 million people doesn't need more power, but it does need hard currency.

In all, about a dozen proposed hydropower projects on the Mekong threaten fish and farming that feed millions while offering distant economic benefits for a lucky few, according to an environmental assessment carried out by the Mekong River Commission, an intergovernmental agency. The study found that the dams would seriously threaten food security, increase poverty, and permanently damage the ecology.

Countries in the region, especially Vietnam and Cambodia, have tried to push back against Laos's hydropower dreams. But a regional summit of the Mekong River Commission in April that gathered all the affected countries together could muster only a generic statement about sustainable development in the Mekong basin, rather than condemning Laos's development outright.

They'll get a fresh chance to iron out differences at another meeting this month. But Laos has made clear that it plans to go ahead with the projects over its neighbors' complaints in spite of a 1995 accord meant precisely to avoid such unilateral power plays.

"It's really now or never," given all the projects on the drawing board, Cronin said. "The issue is: Is there any way to get Laos to play ball?"

The dams aren't just a cause for concern in Vietnam and Cambodia.

"No one country has a right to deprive another country of the livelihood and the ecosystem and its capacity for life itself that comes with that river," U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said while visiting Vietnam in December.

For years Washington has encouraged greater cooperation among Southeast Asian countries, which China's latest regional saber rattling makes more urgent.

This spring, China aggravated relations with many Asian countries, especially Vietnam, Japan, and the Philippines. China's dispatching of a deepwater oil rig to waters claimed by Vietnam in early May sparked the most serious clash between those two countries in years. Vessels playing cat and mouse around the rig have clashed, plenty of Vietnamese ships have limped home with damage, and one Vietnamese fishing boat was sunk. Anti-China riots broke out in Vietnam, further souring relations between two countries that had steadily developed closer economic ties despite a bitter history.

China has also irked the Philippines by building infrastructure on a reef claimed by Manila and chasing away Filipino fishermen. Meanwhile, tensions between China and Japan over disputed islands in the East China Sea remain at a fever pitch. In all cases, Chinese diplomats angrily accuse other countries, including the United States, of provoking unrest throughout the region.

State Department officials urged Cambodia, Vietnam, and upstream countries to find a solution at that Mekong River Commission summit. But the water fights threaten to tear the region apart right when it most needs unity.

Daniel Russel, assistant secretary of state for East Asia, is in Myanmar this weekend for fresh talks, which will include discussing the Mekong's future.

The disputes are a reminder that hydroelectric development, more than almost any other kind of electricity project, can poison international relations. Egypt and Ethiopia are at loggerheads over the latter's plans to build a massive dam on the headwaters of the Nile. Leading politicians in India warn that China's hydroelectric development on the Brahmaputra River is an "act of aggression."

Just as Egypt is worried that the Ethiopian dam will choke the supplies of fresh water it needs for agriculture downstream, Vietnam is terrified that a series of upstream dams will spell the end of its rice production, which relies on the rich, fertile silt carried by the river. If all the proposed dams are built, silt loads downstream will drop 75 percent, according to the Mekong River Commission report.

Cambodia's fears are even more acute. The rich fisheries of Tonle Sap, the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia, largely supply the impoverished country's protein. But the lake is unusual: It all but disappears in the dry season and then expands massively as water flow from the Mekong backs up when the rains come.

"Those fish are so important for their livelihoods, both economically and nutritionally," said Gordon Holtgrieve, a professor at the University of Washington who researches Cambodia's freshwater fish.

"And none of these dams are pointing at good outcomes for the fisheries."

Photo by Christophe Archambault - AFP - Getty


When Bergdahl Speaks

Eventually, the freed American prisoner of war will have to meet the press, and he could become a PR nightmare for the White House.

Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl is receiving medical treatment at a military hospital in Germany after five years in captivity with the Taliban. So far, his parents have been speaking on his behalf. But eventually -- and perhaps soon -- Bergdahl will speak for himself, and depending on what he says, the former prisoner of war will either give the White House a badly needed public relations boost or dig it an even deeper hole.

Bergdahl could easily come forth and thank his rescuers, stress his relief at being back in the United States, and then say he's prepared to cooperate with the coming military inquiry into the circumstances of his capture that Pentagon officials have promised because of persistent rumors that he deserted his base before falling into Taliban hands. But there's good reason for the White House to fret that Bergdahl might wind up saying something else entirely -- sympathize with the Taliban or even mildly criticize the war -- and that his comments, which would attract enormous media attention, would make it even harder for the administration to justify the prisoner swap.

President Obama is already taking heat from a growing number of lawmakers who question whether it was worth trading Bergdahl for five senior Taliban members who had been in U.S. custody at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, including at least one who U.S. intelligence officials say was present at the killing of Johnny Spann, a CIA officer who fought in Afghanistan in 2001 and was the war's first U.S. casualty. And some Congress members are fuming that Obama didn't inform them of the prisoner transfer 30 days ahead of time, as the law requires. On top of that, some of Bergdahl's own former brothers in arms have publicly called him a deserter, and say soldiers died searching for Bergdahl.

Aside from what Bergdahl might say, there's also the question of how he will look when doctors treating him for unspecified medical problems release him, a step likely within a couple of weeks. The administration initially justified its decision not to inform Congress of the prisoner swap by saying Bergdahl's health had recently taken a turn for the worse, leaving it no time to brief lawmakers about the impending deal.

But some lawmakers have said that based on a recent "proof-of-life" video the administration screened for lawmakers on Wednesday, and that was believed to show Bergdahl in captivity in December 2013, he looked healthier than the administration claimed. "I've seen the video; I don't buy that [he] was near death," said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) in an interview. "I hope they release the video to the country as a whole."

"If you look at [National Security Adviser] Susan Rice's statements on Sunday morning, it was all about his health," said Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho), a member of the Intelligence Committee who was briefed by the administration on Wednesday night. "They had received absolutely no information of any kind between January and May 31st, the day of the deal, relating to his health. You can't possibly say it was exigent circumstances."

The Bergdahl release has rapidly shifted from a good news story about the release of an American POW -- one that Obama initially hailed during televised remarks from the White House's Rose Garden -- to the latest controversy to pummel an administration already on the ropes over a growing scandal at the Veterans Affairs Department.

Facing mounting criticism and skepticism on Capitol Hill for its handling of the swap, the administration on Thursday put forward a new justification for the secrecy surrounding Bergdahl's release: The Taliban had threatened to kill Bergdahl if the plan for his release leaked publicly, the Associated Press reported, citing congressional officials who'd been briefed by the administration. Later in the day, a senior administration official essentially confirmed the AP report.

"Our judgment was that every day Sgt. Bergdahl was a prisoner his life was at risk, and in the video we received in January, he did not look well," the official said, referring to the proof-of-life footage shown to lawmakers. "This led to an even greater sense of urgency in pursuing his recovery. We can't disclose classified comments from a closed congressional briefing. However, we are able to say that the senators were told, separate and apart from Sgt. Bergdahl's apparent deterioration in health, that we had both specific and general indications that Sgt. Bergdahl's recovery -- and potentially his life -- could be jeopardized if the detainee exchange proceedings were disclosed or derailed."

Still, some lawmakers were doubtful. "If [the Taliban had] killed him, they'd have no leverage to get their people out of jail," Graham said. "That doesn't make sense to me."

The administration has good reason to fear that its current political problems could grow even worse once Bergdahl himself starts talking.

Prior to his 2009 disappearance from a base in Paktika province in Afghanistan, for instance, the young soldier described in emails to his parents his growing disillusionment with the United States and the armed forces. And in his final email before his disappearance, Bergdahl described losing faith in not only the war but in his country.

"The future is too good to waste on lies," Bergdahl wrote in one email in June 2009. "And life is way too short to care for the damnation of others, as well as to spend it helping fools with their ideas that are wrong. I have seen their ideas and I am ashamed to even be american [sic]. The horror of the self-righteous arrogance that they thrive in. It is all revolting."

"The title of U.S. soldier is just the lie of fools," Bergdahl wrote his parents. Those views have undoubtedly contributed to the intense criticism leveled against the prisoner swap by members of Bergdahl's former unit.

Bergdahl's father, Bob Bergdahl, has done his son no favors in currying support among the American public. In a tweet directed at a Taliban spokesman three days before his son's release, the elder Bergdahl wrote, "I am still working to free all Guantanamo prisoners. God will repay for the death of every Afghan child, ameen!" The tweet has since been deleted and has become a centerpiece for conspiracy theories alleging that Bergdahl's father, who converted to Islam while his son was missing, has become an apologist for his son's captors. And it has raised questions among some military officers about whether the younger Bergdahl might express either Taliban sympathies or a similar belief that all Guantánamo Bay detainees should be freed when he eventually speaks.

Bob Bergdahl has taught himself some Urdu and Pashto, the languages spoken along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. He has also grown a long beard and has published YouTube videos in which he directly addresses the Taliban, pleading for his son's release. According to one conspiratorial line of thinking making the rounds in the conservative press, the elder Bergdahl's actions point toward a kind of Stockholm syndrome. Earlier this week, Fox News host Brian Kilmeade latched on to Bob Bergdahl's beard as evidence of his sympathy toward the Taliban. "I mean, he says he was growing his beard because his son was in captivity. Well, your son's out now," Kilmeade said. "You don't have to look like a member of the Taliban. Are you out of razors?"

For now, Bergdahl remains at the U.S. military's medical facility in Landstuhl, Germany, where he is recovering after his release over the weekend. Pentagon officials said Thursday that he remains in stable condition and his doctors believe his health has been improving daily, though they have constantly refused to disclose what he is being treated for and what injuries, if any, he sustained at the hands of the Taliban.

"Sgt. Bergdahl is conversing with medical staff and becoming more engaged in his treatment care plan," said Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman. "He is getting better and showing signs of improvement."

Bergdahl, who has yet to speak with his parents, remains in what the military terms "phase two" of his reintegration from captivity. Defense officials briefing reporters Thursday said that second phase can last between a few days and a few weeks or more.

Pentagon officials said there was no way to know when Bergdahl would be released from the facility in Germany and that there were no indications that Bergdahl would be speaking publicly anytime soon.

When his doctors decide Bergdahl is ready to be moved, he will be transferred to Brooke Army Medical Center in Texas, where he would be expected to reunite with his family and begin the third phase of his reintegration treatment. His first media interviews would likely start then as well.