The Mekong: Turbulent past, uncertain future

Milton Osborne

Allen & Unwin 2000
A book review by Danny Yee © 2000
A popular account of some of the historical highlights of exploration and development along the Mekong, Milton Osborne's latest offering is as much travelogue as history. For the more recent material he draws on forty years personal involvement with Southeast Asia, focusing on development issues; for the earlier period he is most fascinated by the history of European exploration. The result is episodic and personal, but also readable and informative.

Osborne touches on the earlier history of the region, on settlement in the Mekong delta and the Angkor empire, but soon comes to the colonial period. Here his primary interest is in exploration rather than broader history: he devotes forty five pages to the 1866-68 Mekong Expedition (the subject of an earlier book River Road to China) and almost as much again to attempts to navigate the Mekong, especially the problems posed by the Khone Falls. He also touches on the symbolic role of the Mekong in French colonial consciousness.

The three chapters on the period of the First and Second Indochina wars don't cover much general history (and might not be that easy to follow for readers without any knowledge of the history of the Vietnam war). Instead they try to give a feel for what it was like to live in Saigon and Phnom Penh before, during, and after the fighting, and for the human tragedies involved. They also cover early dam proposals and the setting up of the Mekong Committee.

Part three looks at some of the ongoing controversies surrounding large development projects. Osborne sketches the dangers (known and potential) to the ecology of the river posed by Chinese dams on the Mekong itself and by Thai and Laotian dams on Mekong tributaries (oddly there is no mention of Vietnamese dams on the Se San). He also looks at the changes brought by the development of bridges and transport systems and growth in tourism. Will development along the Mekong be controlled by the local people on whom it has the greatest impact, or by national elites, large corporations, and multilaterals such as the Asian Development Bank?

July 2000

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Related reviews:
- Milton Osborne - River Road to China: The Mekong River Expedition, 1866-73
- books about Southeast Asia + Southeast Asian history
- books about exploration
- more history
%T The Mekong
%S Turbulent past, uncertain future
%A Osborne, Milton
%I Allen & Unwin
%D 2000
%O hardcover, bibliography, index
%G ISBN 1865082198
%P xvi,295pp