>Mekong PMs discuss development amid global financial turmoil

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The five prime minsters of the sub-Mekong region at a summit in Hanoi. (L-R- Burma’s Thein Sein, Thailand’s Somchai Wongsawat, Vietnam’s Nguyen Tan Dung, Cambodia’s Hun Sen and Laos’ Bouasone Bouphanvanh).

HANOI (AFP) — Leaders from Southeast Asia’s Mekong region met in Vietnam on Friday to discuss joint development initiatives amid fears that global financial turmoil may dry up foreign aid and investment.

Prime ministers from Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam sat down for a summit of the group named after the region’s three major rivers, the Ayeyawady-Chao Phraya-Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy (ACMECS) forum.

Vietnam’s Nguyen Tan Dung, who opened the meeting in Hanoi, said the five developing countries should strengthen their transport, trade and investment links at a time of international economic uncertainty.

“Given the recent upsets of the regional and global economy, especially the global financial turbulence, energy and food security (issues), ACMECS countries should work more closely with each other,” Dung said.

Thailand’s Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat also stressed that the region’s countries are “not immune to the recent global financial crisis and have been affected by volatile oil and food prices.”

“As major commodity producers and exporters, we have witnessed both surges and slumps in commodity prices,” said Somchai, who planned to discuss rice prices with Dung as leaders of the world’s two top rice-exporting countries.

Cambodia’s Hun Sen warned that finding sources of funding for development remained a “challenge for all of us” and called for debate among the premiers on a “creative and innovative mechanism for project financing.”

Except for middle-income country Thailand, the Mekong nations remain among Asia’s poorest and hope to build prosperity through closer regional transport and commercial links, both with each other and with China.

The Asian Development Bank has overseen a programme to link the region through a network of transnational highways and Mekong river bridges, to turn former conflict zones and backwaters into so-called economic corridors.

Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos were cold war battlegrounds until the Vietnam war ended in 1975, and conflict raged on in Cambodia until the 1990s. Army-ruled Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, remains diplomatically isolated and poor.

Thailand’s Somchai, on his first Vietnam visit since taking office in September, said joint initiatives had already borne fruit and that “during the last few years, we have seen a sharp increase in trade, investment and tourism.”

His foreign minister, Sompong Amornvivat, on Thursday reaffirmed that Thailand would help finance a third Mekong river bridge to Laos between the northeastern city of Nakorn Phanom and Kam Muan.

Bouasone Bouphavanh, the premier of Laos — a landlocked country that is the region’s poorest and hopes to benefit most from greater regional links — said the grouping should speed up its integration process.

“We need to swiftly address the impediments,” he said, urging his neighbours to streamline trade and investment, border inspection and customs rules.

The ACMECS group looks to boost ties in seven areas — telecommunication, tourism, trade and investment, agriculture, industry and energy, human resource development and public health development.

Dung said the premiers planned to endorse a declaration on boosting trade, investment and tourism in border areas. The countries have also worked on a “Five Nations, One Destination” tourism initiative.

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