Sunday, 8 November 2009

Japan steps up aid to Mekong nations

Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama (C) hosts the Mekong-Japan Summit meeting

Posted: 07 November 2009

(Posted by CAAI News Media)

TOKYO: The leaders of Japan and Southeast Asia's five Mekong River nations wrapped up a summit at which Tokyo pledged more than US$5.5 billion in loans and grants and vowed deeper ties.

Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama told a press conference on Saturday the Mekong region was a "priority area" for Japan's official development assistance (ODA) as it seeks to boost development in the resource-rich area.

A joint declaration said "Japan commits more than 500 billion yen of ODA in the next three years" for the further development of the Mekong region, which includes Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar and Thailand.

"We strongly recognised the need for further strengthening of the Mekong-Japan relationship and cooperation to maximise the potential of the Mekong region," the statement said.

Asian giants Japan and China have for years poured aid and investment into the region, home to more than 220 million people, and are seen increasingly as competitors for influence.

Much of the region along the lower reaches of the 4,800-kilometre (2,980-mile) Mekong River has historically been isolated by war and political turmoil and remains poorer than other parts of Southeast Asia.

Hatoyama, who has pushed the concept of an EU-style Asian community, has set his sights on boosting economic development and has vowed to expand aid, particularly to Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.

Eighty per cent of the US$5.5-billion package would be in low-interest yen loans, for projects ranging from regional highway links to water infrastructure and technological training, a government official said.

The leaders also agreed on an action plan to promote development, protect the environment and fight climate change under the slogan "A decade towards the Green Mekong."

And they demanded that Myanmar take steps towards democracy, calling for transparent elections next year.

The action plan said the leaders "expect that the government of Myanmar would take more positive steps in its democratisation process."

Hatoyama was later Saturday due to meet Thein Sein, Myanmar's first premier to visit Japan since 2003.

The Nikkei economic daily said Hatoyama would outline plans to increase aid to the country, criticised for human rights abuses including its detention of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Hatoyama hailed Washington's latest efforts to engage Myanmar as beneficial for the entire Mekong region.

President Barack Obama's administration has recently changed its policy on Myanmar, saying it would push for engagement with the military regime because sanctions on their own had failed to bear fruit.

The leaders at the summit agreed to hold talks every year.

The goal of the Mekong group is to boost development through cooperation.

But the summit took place amid increasing tensions between Thailand and Cambodia, sparked by Cambodia's naming of Thailand's fugitive ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra as a government adviser.

- AFP/yb

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