Uneven Development and the Special Economic Zones of the Greater Mekong Subregion


Announcing: Walsh, John, “Uneven Development and the Special Economic Zones of the Greater Mekong Subregion,” Journal of Perspectives on Development in the Greater Mekong Region, Vol.3, No.1 (January-June, 2015), pp.1-16, available at: http://icmr.crru.ac.th/Journal/Journal%205/1%20Uneven%20Development%20and%20the%20Special%20Economic.pdf.


The use of industrial estates in the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) has been very successful in terms of numbers of projects launched, number of factories opened, amount of goods manufactured and so forth. However, although aggregate levels of creation are impressive, it is not clear that the value added to the economies involved overall is very high. One important means of enhancing the quality of the connectivity between economic actors located within an industrial estate and other economic actors in the wider economy. This would involve connectivity that would be characterized as becoming greener and smarter. This paper argues that the concepts of environmental friendliness and intelligent relationships can be folded into the construct of connectivity as a framework for analysis. This is used to inform the study and discussion of a series of case studies of industrial estates within the GMS and helps to refine a future research agenda.

KEYWORDS Connectivity, Greater Mekong Subregion, Industrial estates, Special economic zones, Uneven development

Monk Travellers: Spreading the Opportunity to Do Good under Theravadin Buddhhism


This is the third abstract from the forthcoming IFRD Conference, co-authored with Phramaha Min Putthithanasombat:

Monk Travellers: Spreading the Opportunity to Do Good under Theravadin Buddhhism


In Theravadin Buddhism, which is the most prevalent form in the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMSR), the monk is a central figure in giving people the opportunity to do good by donating food on the early morning perambulation and on other occasions. Moving from one place to another is, therefore, an inherently important aspect of the monk’s daily routine. As part of the everyday politics of life as experienced by most people in the region, monks have become prominent features of the quotidian landscape and, hence, influencers of opinion and feelings by virtue of their presence. However, what impact does it have if the monk travels further afield, even internationally? Research has indicated that cross-border travel in the GMSR for religious purposes can help to improve social relations and that the management of facilities related to temples (wats) can be organized along religious-philosophical lines. This paper uses a qualitative research approach to extend the previous analysis to consider the role of the monk as both manager and agent of change in the role of international traveller. It is argued that elements of Buddhist dharma can explain the role of the monk as manager, especially when taken in conjunction with parts of management literature.

Keywords: Greater Mekong Subregion; monks; perambulation; Theravadin Buddhism; travel

Phramaha Min Putthithanasombat, School of Management, Shinawatra University

John Walsh, School of Management, Shinawatra University

Cross-Border Labour Migration in Mainland Southeast Asia

This is the abstract of the paper I am going to present at the conference on mainland Southeast Asian nation relations to be held at Salaya Campus of Mahidol University, next month (June 24th-25th):

Cross-Border Labour Migration in Mainland Southeast Asia


As new stages in the formation of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) are approached, a great deal of attention has been placed on the possibilities for migration in certain categories of skilled labour. Yet this phenomenon is dwarfed in size and importance by the movement of unskilled and semi-skilled labour in the region. Millions of workers from neighbouring countries have travelled to Thailand to take advantage of better wages available there, while there are smaller but still important movements of Vietnamese workers and traders to Laos and Chinese investors, traders and workers in all countries. These movements offer opportunities and threats to those included but are not unproblematic from social or political perspectives. Successive governments in Thailand, for example, have sought to regulate the movements of migrant workers and bring more of them into the formal sector of the economy through documentation. At the same time, the construction of increasing numbers of special economic zones in all the countries of the region has provided new magnets for labour migration, including cross-border migration under the border region zones being proposed for Thailand. This paper seeks to identify the principal causes and effects of labour migration in mainland Southeast Asia and the various societal and political implications that arise from their presence. Migration, it is argued, is a rational response to uneven development and one that can lead to a number of benefits to all involved. However, in an era of occasionally intemperate nationalism, there is considerable scope for negative outcomes and these should be addressed. Some policy options are provided as the result of the analysis.

Keywords: informal sector; economic development; labour migration; mainland Southeast Asia; special economic zones;

John Walsh, Shinawatra University

Street Vending in the Greater Mekong Subregion

This is my abstract which has been accepted (and now awaits the full paper) for the forthcoming Handbook of Entrepreneurship in Developing Countries, which is going to be published by Routledge I think:

Street Vending in the Greater Mekong Subregion


One of the most visible and versatile means by which both women and men can pursue entrepreneurialism in the developing word is street vending. This is an occupation that can be seasonal in nature, flexible in working hours and communal in nature, although working conditions may be difficult or even exploitative. Street vendors can suffer from harassment from state officials and extortionists, as well as the casual indignities inflicted by customers and passers-by and the difficulties involved in working outdoors. Alternatively, some street vending operations are now sophisticated and profitable. Street vending brings cheap and fresh food to millions of workers to enable low cost export-oriented manufacturing to continue as well as making office work possible in otherwise expensive city centres. It also offers a means for farmers to obtain cash income and a reserve for workers unable to obtain work in the formal sector, as well as a means of linking the formal and informal sectors. This is particularly true for the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMSR), which consists of Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam and Yunnan province and Guanxi Zhuang autonomous zone of China. The GMSR has a number of countries entering or passing through the Factory Asia paradigm of production and fertile agricultural sectors mixed with continued poverty and heightening inequality. In this region, city streets offer an arena in which entrepreneurial individuals can achieve their goals, whether these relate to business success or just survival. This article draws upon studies conducted in all the GMSR countries to identify the various forms of street vending that are taking place, highlighting changes in market conditions and governmental responses to the practice. The scope for entrepreneurial activities is appraised and the contribution to the overall economies of the region considered. Finally, the streets in which vendors work represent the place where everyday politics occurs and this provides a different dimension to its practice.

Keywords: entrepreneurialism; everyday politics; Factory Asia; Greater Mekong Subregion; street vending;.

John Walsh, Shinawatra University

The Special Economic Zones of the Greater Mekong Subregion: Land Ownership and Social Transformation


This is the abstract for the paper I will be presenting for the Land Politics Conference in Chiang Mai in June (http://www.tni.org/article/land-grabbing-perspectives-east-and-southeast-asia).

The Special Economic Zones of the Greater Mekong Subregion: Land Ownership and Social Transformation


Special economic zones (SEZs) are geographical areas bounded in space and time that are aimed at encouraging inward investment by privileging capital above labour and above the general legal system. In the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMSR), which consists of Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Yunnan Province and Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Zone of China, SEZs have been used extensively and with considerable success according to quantitative measures. In general, these measures have promoted the Factory Asia paradigm of low labour cost competitiveness in import-substituting, export-oriented manufacturing. This is a paradigm that is limited in time and ends with the effect known as the Middle Income Trap, which now affects Thailand and can only really be exited by qualitative change in economy and society to promote innovation and creativity. In other parts of the GMSR, states have not progressed so far along this trajectory and, in Laos and Myanmar, are at the very early stages of their journeys. In the majority of cases, SEZs are built with public sector support and, in particular, with assistance in obtaining land. Often, as in the case of Dawei SEZ in Myanmar, this has involved the forcible relocation of the villagers from an area the size of Singapore. At least some of the dispossessed villagers have mounted armed resistance to this relocation and halted construction. This may be seen as a form of creative destruction during the process of what Polanyi called the great transformation. Social relations and social capital are among the assets that are transformed into market relations as land itself is redefined and reconfigured as commercially important space. This paper explores the variety of SEZs in the GMSR and the way they interact with the people who once lived on or near the land they now occupy. Remedial social policy options are explored.

Keywords: Greater Mekong Subregion, land, special economic zone, transformation

John Walsh, School of Management, Shinawatra University

Minimum Wage Systems in the Greater Mekong Sub-Region


This is the paper I gave at the recent international workshop held at the National University of Singapore on the subject of Social Policy: Formulation and Design in Comparative Perspective: Minimum Wage Systems in the Greater Mekong Sub-Region


As a policy, the minimum wage has always been controversial and its results contested. Proponents claim that it leads to the eradication of the worst excesses of exploitation in a labour market, while opponents argue it prices poorly-skilled workers out of a job. Evidence is inconclusive for this basic issue, partly because of insufficient evidence and the research is even more limited when it comes to consideration of subtler objectives of the policy, such as the desire to promote regional development in an unequal society or protect particular sectors (e.g. Malaysian plantation workers) or to reconfigure spatial development within a country so as to manage flows of migrant workers more effectively. The evidence on minimum wages that does exist tends to be derived from the developed economies and to be bound within a single discipline (e.g. economics) which is unable to incorporate the range of other effects and implications with which a minimum wage is associated. Assessing the effects of minimum wages in the Greater Mekong Sub-Region (GMSR) is more complex because of the absence of reliable data in many areas, the prominence of the informal sector, the large-scale undocumented internal and cross-border migration flows and the continued importance of the agricultural sector. Even so, the importance of the minimum wage as a tool of social policy has been intensified as more and more parts of the region become subject to the Factory Asia paradigm of import-substituting, export-oriented, low labour cost competitive manufacturing. Adoption of this paradigm leads to the creation of a working class and significant rearrangement of gender relations, among other changes. There is a need, therefore, to investigate the current minimum wage systems used within the GMSR and the alternatives that might be adopted, seeking to understand how they are set (e.g. imposed by government or as a result of tripartite negotiations), at what levels are they set and why and to what extent is it possible to trace the relationships between minimum wage systems and other forms of social policy. The experiences of the GMSR members in this regard are ranged along the trajectory of the Factory Asia paradigm, with Myanmar and Laos just starting to embrace it and Thailand having reached the limits of what it can achieve and seeking an upwards exit. The minimum wage strategy is, consequently, affected by time as well as space and is also dependent to some extent on the external environment.

The Prospective Nong Khai Special Economic Zone and the Promotion of Connectivity in the Greater Mekong Subregion


Pinyochatchinda, Supaporn and John Walsh, “The Prospective Nong Khai Special Economic Zone and the Promotion of Connectivity in the Greater Mekong Subregion,” paper to be presented at the International Conference on Commerce, Financial Markets and Corporate Governance/2nd International Conference on Research Methods in Management and Social Sciences (Shinawatra University, Thailand: February 7th, 2015).


Special economic zones (SEZs) have become a standard part of the attempt to secure rapid economic development in Southeast Asia and across most of the developing world. They focus on import-substituting, export-oriented intensive manufacturing based on low labour cost competitiveness. The location of SEZs depends on factors such as proximity to markets, to sources of labour and to sources of natural resources which can be processed inside them. A relatively new approach to SEZs, especially in the Greater Mekong Subregion (Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam and Yunnan province and Guanxi Autonomous Zone of China), is to create cross-border or border-facing SEZs. The idea is to harness competitive advantages available on both sides of the border with reduced transaction costs resulting from transportation and infrastructure. One such example of an SEZ of this type is in Nong Khai province of Thailand, which borders the Lao PDR capital of Vientiane and its surrounding province across the River Mekong. Cross-border trade and investment in Nong Khai is already estimated to be worth some US$1,212 million annually and this is likely to increase significantly as further stages in the implementation of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) take place, particularly the 2015 changes that are projected to take place. This will include some freer movement of skilled labour across borders for a small number of job categories, although that number is likely to increase in the future. It seems logical, therefore, to establish a border-facing SEZ in Nong Khai province to take advantage of cross-border complementarities and to enhance connectivity in this context. What will be the implications of such a policy? What problems are likely to be faced and how are they to be overcome, if at all? This paper explores this issues using a variety of qualitative and quantitative research methods and using comparable case studies from other relevant locations. The results are discussed and policy implications for future progress highlighted.

Keywords: ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), connectivity, Nong Khai, special economic zone (SEZ)