Kenya leapfrogging ahead to a green energy economy!

Countries across the globe recognize the need to safeguard natural resources, productive capacity, and health and well-being, from pollution and climate change. The Paris Agreement on Climate Change seeks to bring the whole world together to address the climate threat. The challenge is in its implementation and regular ratcheting up of targets.

Considering the pressing need for new energy sources in Africa to support a growing economy as well as the vulnerability of Africa’s natural resources – soil and water in particular – to climate change, this blog explores the best energy strategy for countries like Kenya. 

I conclude that Kenya should not go down the route of coal-fired power stations but should leapfrog the West and Asia, and not invest in fossil fuel generation at all. In this way, it can approach climate negotiations with clean hands, it will be protected from many of the costs impact of regulatory and policy change such as carbon taxes, it will be able to avoid the air pollution causing health havoc in countries like China and India, last if not least it will help it secure the high-end tourism that it seeks to expand.

Plans for a Coal-fired Power Station on the Indian Ocean Coastline

This is an imminent issue as Kenya is soon to build its first coal-fired power station, with Chinese support, close to the beautiful coastal town of Lamu.

I don’t much like dogma – and sometimes things aren’t always quite what they seem. Perhaps Kenya needs to go down this route and compromises need to be made? Current over-reliance on biomass i.e. cutting down trees for cooking fuel isn’t sustainable either. However, having explored this further, I’d stick to my instinctive response. Like the Pacific Islands going zero carbon, considering their vulnerability to sea level rise, like countries that are highly innovative like Japan and Denmark, and taking on board Asia leapfrogging others on green finance, Africa can and should leapfrog others on energy. The great news of course is that though black smoke, polluted waters etc may seem an inevitable part of progress, as Africa urbanises and industrialises it can go a different way!



Energy Needs

The basic position is that Africa needs more energy for lighting, cooking, transport and industry. Whilst Kenya uses 0.17 mWh electricity per capita, rich countries like the US use about 13 mWh electricity (100x more) and the Chinese about 4mWh per capita[1] (20x more). Government projections in Kenya are of an increase in capacity by 5x – from 3.4 GW in 2015 to 18GW in 2018[2].

That of course is not an argument in itself, but cutting down trees for cooking fuel is causing huge environmental degradation, and a better energy solution is needed. Clean, affordable, reliable power may also allow Kenya to diversify its economy, as in Kenya’s Vision 2030, and be less dependent on rainfed unpredictable agriculture – perhaps a place of high tech or at least textiles etc. It may allow diesel vehicles to be replaced by electric vehicles, cooking to be done on clean electric stoves instead. Surviving on lion-watching tourist mini-buses, Daily Mail reading sun –seeker tourists, plus growing coffee prone to disease and fluctuating prices is precarious.

But we must remind ourselves that plentiful power is not an end in itself. Why swap a semi-outdoors style of design for high energy over-cooled, stuffy shopping malls, offices and restaurants? Moreover, on its own it won’t kickstart the economy: a skilled workforce, a high calibre technical/scientific community, and good governance are all more important for progress. High “liveability” is critical for this – retaining and attracting talent as well as maintaining a healthy local skilled population.

So what’s wrong with coal?

The pictures below from Beijing are a salutary reminder of the risks of following the same path. This is a situation which no-one wishes to be in! Prof Stephen Chu on a visit to Hong Kong described it as a 40 cigarette a day habit from the day of birth. Its not a happy place to be with air quality levels (PM 2.5s) about 50x above WHO limits, a lot of this due to coal fired power stations.  Perhaps even more importantly the climate impacts of burning coal are huge, as coal has the highest GHG emissions. If we don’t make drastic cuts globally, the commitment to achieve a net zero carbon world and stabliise the world’s climate will not succeed.

beijing poor AQcongstion and pollution


Kenya currently largely relies on renewables – hydro and geothermal make up 70% of its energy capacity.  It is already building scale wind farms (in Turkana) and using small scale solar.  In many ways its ahead of the game on climate friendly technology. It could avoid ever facing situations like what we see above.

Why say no to coal?

My argument for saying no to coal (and other fossil fuels) is 5-fold:

  • Kenya needs to make the Paris Agreement work – and it helps to approach the agreement with clean hands not as a big polluter;
  • It should reduce risk to business/the economy in Kenya arising from the likely new regulatory framework for a global low carbon economy – which Kenya needs to push for;
  • Solar power is entirely affordable and a good clean option for the country;
  • A weak transmission network makes local off-grid systems cost-competitive compared with centralised fossil fuel generation; and
  • In the absence of a strong regulatory system, competitive prices should be better achieved through avoiding excessive reliance on just a few power producers.

As to making the Paris Agreement work, the plan for a coal-fired power station in Lamu could be a step in an unravelling climate change agreement Developing countries across the world may pick up the last generation coal power stations whilst other countries like China keep to their Paris Agreement and move on: a one step forward and a one step backward approach, on a global scale. This needs to be avoided if we can.

Kenya as one of the losers in terms of climate change could do with coming to negotiations with clean hands – it doesn’t need to get into bed with the polluters. If it keeps its hands clean, it can push for border tariffs and carbon prices. If locked into a system too, it will not be able to push for those mechanisms that disincentivise carbon emissions.

The renewable energy route will also reduce the otherwise adverse impact of the policy changes that Kenya needs eg carbon prices on its own businesses. It minimises the so-called “regulatory risk” on its own economy. Its hard to push for the right policies if you end up facing the squeeze.

But is renewable energy really a practicable and affordable option?

Put another way, is the proposed 1.05 GW capacity power station on 395 ha about 21 kilometres north of Lamu replaceable by an affordable cleaner low carbon system? Can Kenya’s power generation be met through RE rather than gas or coal?

As IRENA’s Africa 2030: Roadmap for Renewable Energy[3] states there are several ways to increase generation through RE with plentiful potential – from solar, on-shore wind, and geothermal. Globally, the weighted average Levelised Cost of Energy (“LCOE”) for newly installed utility-scale solar PV in 2015 was USD 0.13/kWh. This compares with USD 0.05-0.10/kWh from coal and natural gas[4]. However, the most competitive utility-scale projects in 2015 were regularly delivering electricity for USD 0.08/kWh without financial support[5].  In terms of costs in Africa, some forms of RE utility scale solar are now not far off coal: $0.13 – 0.26 LCOE per kWh. The lowest cost of utility scale solar is even lower, at $0.075 mWh, in South Africa.

And that’s just solar PV. Development is occurring in Concentrated Solar Power (see Africa Roadmap 2030) – which has the advantage of the power generated increasing with temperatures unlike solar PV. Also wind energy and geothermal offer much potential. Year by year capital and installation costs are falling.

As a reminder the comparative emissions are as follows: coal emits roughly 740-910 gCO2/kWh; gas about 410 -650 gCO2/kWh, and solar 18-180 g/kWh; and wind 7-56 g/kWh (IRENA 2017).

“Renewables are now the first-choice option for expanding, upgrading and modernising power systems around the world. Wind and solar power, which commanded about 90% of 2015 investments in renewable power, are now competitive with conventional sources of electricity, as their costs have plunged in recent years. The cost of wind turbines has fallen by nearly a third since 2009 and that of solar photovoltaic (PV) modules by 80%”. [10].

What about the other problems  re RE? 

 Land supply – is there enough space for all of this?

This isn’t a major problem in Kenya – though what we are looking at is large scale solar not rooftop PV as in Europe. Solar on large buildings – around 1MW or utility scale beyond – is one option.  The largest (as of 2012) was a 392MW capacity ground mounted site in California (Ivanpah) spread over 5 square miles of federal land. Just over 3 such sites would provide the equivalent electricity from the Lamu power station with almost zero emissions and no air pollution. 50 such sites would give you the level of electricity that Kenya needs. Northern, Western and the Kenyan coast have high levels of sunshine year round, is well-suited to PV panels – some of the best parts of the world for solar energy lie here. Also the land use is ideal for PV once you get into the desert. PV panels can work alongside scrub and goats. They may even have other benefits in reducing evaporation and reducing wind and water erosion.

 Viability in the face of Variability?

The other question is viability – can an electricity grid be run on 100% renewable energy? A lot of the countries powering ahead like South Africa and Mexico aim to draw 5-10% of their share of electricity from solar and wind by 2020 (just 3 years away). But still that’s just a proportion. What we’re looking at here is a scenario where RE makes up almost all of energy needs. Even Germany hasn’t got that far! It has about 33% renewable power.

Can Kenya run its grid on 50% solar considering its variability over the day? That might be a challenge. However, Kenya is well-positioned for a mixture of solar, wind, hydro and geothermal. Battery storage is also improving with California an exemplar of change and Tesla’s new battery storage plant in California is at the forefront of that change. As to successful integration into the grid, there is plenty of evidence to show this is possible. As much as 70% of a regional German grid is now RE, and without the use of storage[7].

 Raising the capital?

The relative costs of finance are also an argument in favour of PV. Increasingly investors are looking for greener projects to finance. I mentioned at the outset Asian investors taking on board ESG considerations, as are EU and American investors. New guidance from the G20’s Financial Stability Taskforce will strengthen this move and a price on carbon amongst other things is widely anticipated. So in terms of accessing finance, RE has its benefits[8].

Job creation – job losses?

But how about the poor farmers in Lamu that sees selling the family land to the power company as a way out of poverty?  Well, they can be offered the opportunity to diversify and install some PV on their rooftop or to sell up to the PV plant.

Taking on board the positives: Making Money from Storing Carbon

Considering its land and reforestation potential, Kenya can get close to zero carbon and also generate revenue absorbing other country’s carbon as it is already beginning to do (See this IFC forest bond project Getting as close to zero GHG emissions is possible and worthwhile. That way it can use its land to generate returns. If it expands coal-fired generation it will simply have to offset its own emission.

 Conclusions: why Kenya can and should leapfrog Asia?

Kenya is one of the big losers in what at worst is beginning to look like a 100x worse version of the Grapes of Wrath[11]. Climate change is expected to mean more extreme and regular drought, causing conflict and migration. There are not many Kenyans who don’t know what drought means – forcing people to the towns, children going hungry to school, and national parks full of bleached bones.  This rather cruel situation is already playing out as climate refugees[12] flee  to look for a better life elsewhere.

Considering its extreme vulnerability, Kenya has the most to gain by holding the Paris Agreement together, keeping the world on a trajectory to net zero emissions by 2050.  This means even Kenya playing its part and showing what is possible. No point just complaining that it’s the rich countries fault and they should pay. Just isn’t going to happen, as people vote for Donald J Trump!

By going down the renewables route, it can minimize the financial risks on its industries of fossil fuels. A 2°C world means new policy measures can be expected worldwide – including carbon prices and border tariffs so that those with high emissions are penalised for it. Kenya could be hit by these if it goes down the coal route.  Moreover, these are the sort of measures that Kenya will need to push for, and it is important that it doesn’t tie itself into a system that will tie its hands so that it cannot demand the policies that it needs to save its citizens.

Investing in renewable energy will also help save the pristine spaces on the coast, with its coral reef and marine parks, critical to Kenya’s Vision 2030 tourism plans, from air pollution. Kenya’s attraction is in its natural environment.  A more distributed form of energy generation will also reduce the need for a vast and expensive transmission network, though a localized approach, and help provide electricity at a competitive price to all those parts of the country that need it.





[3] IRENA 2015

[4] A Roadmap for a Renewable Energy Future, IRENA, 2016

[5] IRENA 2016

[6] IRENA 2016

[7] Irena – Rethinking Energy 2017

p11 and p.21

[8] Irena 2017 p. 22 and p.38


[10] Irena 2017, p.9

[11] 5th Assessment Report (IPCC)




Living in the New Territories

We have moved again. Seems that once you move, you don’t want to stop. This time we’ve simply crossed the water from the HK Island side to the other – sort of the Kowloon side but sort of not. Strictly we are in the new Tseung Kwan O metropolis, Sai Kung District, the New Territories. Tseung Kwan O, by the way is Junk Bay in English. I now know where the word junk came from.

Our new “building”/development  – 17 tower blocks of 50 storeys each with 8 flats per floor  – is so vast that it makes the last one (5 tower blocks only) seem like a little close-knit community. It takes 5-10mins to walk from one side to the other. On top of the MTR station is another substantial development, aptly named Metroland, and a vast public housing estate behind.

Before it became Ocean Shores or Wai Geng Wan Boon (which means something about a view of Victoria Harbour – of which there is none at all. Something similar between how HK names its buildings and Donald Trump), our development was the site of the old Rennie’s Mill.  Rennie set up the HK Milling Company making bread and flour along with stalwarts of the old HK – Paul Chater and HM Mody. They live on, with roads named after them etc, but poor Paul Rennie wasn’t so fortunate and ended up drowning himself when the business failed. Apparently just off shore from here!

Its hard to tell exactly where our building is on the photo. A fair bit of the bay in the foreground has been “reclaimed” from the sea and our development I believe is along the headland you can see on the left hand side. Difficult to be sure. It would be nice to be living in a place like the one in the photo but I guess it wouldn’t be great to have to take the road snaking over the mountain to get to work every day.


The place we actually live in looks like this. Our buildings are behind the tall ones on the right and they are right on top of the MTR station.  I am a bit of a fan of compact high rise development, saving the space for walks into nature etc. So our block with its “reasonable size” apartments about 5 kids playgrounds, 4 swimming pools, gym, tennis courts, reading room etc is not a bad place to live.

We tend to walk to the next MTR station, Tsung Kwan O for restaurants and shops. But last weekend I thought I may walk the other way and then get the MTR too Ikea (as one does universally these days – go to Ikea at least – these days). Here are a couple of views of what the footpath looks like – a plug for high density living!


Its nothing special really and if I had more time, I think I’d try and get involved in a management plan to bring back more diversity. But still I am not complaining! And one day we will catch the Wilson Trail at the top of the hill and walk all the way too Kowloon Peak which we looked out over from our old apartment.

I enjoy looking out for the little forgotten snippets of an earlier time, when these hillsides were full of squatters and recent immigrants. There are still huts hidden in the hillside and even a temple of beaten red metal, on the final stretch of my walk to Yau Tong MTR, with its oranges, incense and collection of gods inside. I didn’t manage to snap the temple but here is what must have been a temporary home for one or more families.



The other aspect of New Territories living is cycling! People despise bicycles on the island – an embarrassing memory of one’s past which one doesn’t want to even contemplate. Before the times of the shiny aircon MTR, or before the time of the shiny BMW or even Tesla. But here they love their bikes and the Tseung Kwan O metropolis is fully cyclable. So we have had a lovely day exploring the rather amorphous metropolis –cycling along the shore, and pushing up our bikes uphill and then freewheeling downhill to Silverstrand Beach.

There is lots that could make this place really great (again) – its in the middle of nature but still so removed. I have found a perfect little beach for Tseung Kwan O swimmers, though I suspect it will soon disappear to a road or a tunnel. I am trying to get in touch with my district councillor and become one of those difficult, demanding residents. Lets see if one can get things done that way!

Vietnam – peeling back the soft sheen and the sepia


Communism in Vietnam 

Order and planning – maintaining our culture and heritage in the face of modernity

Hindered by short-termism and a focus on growth

Our Toyoto Prius cab glides along the airport highway towards the Red River and then to Hanoi. This feels like some mix between Bangkok and Manila: a fascinating hotchpotch of houses along the road – tall thin, some with European influences, solar panels, bill boards. The usual medley of shops, homes and eateries, of any ordinary South East Asian city – though on the orderly, prosperous side of the continuum.

carpet_bombing_by_archangel72367-d45yc37Yet for many of us, when we think Vietnam our minds are swiftly flooded by a succession of dark images, the war time scenes: terror at Mai Lai, B52s dropping bomb after bomb like frog spawn -so close together – on idyllic tropical forest and paddy fields[1].  For others, like me, we also hold in our minds images of exquisite beauty from the An Nam coast or further south – glimpses of mountains that reach down to the sea, the luxurious dark wood of the sailing junks, the lacquer reds and blacks of the Buddhist temples. Essentially indigenous Vietnamese but incorrigibly French, viewed through the lens of movies like Indochine.


boats-and-waterAfter spending a short summer break in Hanoi, following in the footsteps of the Hampstead crowd, I am going to make an attempt to peel away the soft sheen of Indochine and the anguish of the war to get a sense of a modern day Vietnam. I’ll experiment with seeing Vietnam through non-Western Eyes. It was Frances Fitzgerald’s Fire in the Lake set in Vietnam that inspired Edward Said’s critique of “Orientalism”, so let’s see what can be done with other eyes.

Western influence is the wrong place to start – the Westerners had little more than an overnight stay, whilst China was here for centuries. The real history is perhaps best read in Christopher Goscha’s History of Vietnam – the story of the Sinicised elites, the warring north and south for many centuries – from the area North of Hanoi to Hue in the Champa south. I like the story of the sisters Trung who wrest control of the country from the Chinese state – there is a hidden matriarchal culture in this part of the world, I note again.  The Confucian repertoire of enlightened monarch, good governance and social harmony apparently existed by time the colonial French arrived on the scene. According to Goscha, Vietnam was a pretty modern state by then.  Here is a rather lovely Chinese view of the western aggressor, armed to the hilt leaving nothing to chance.



Moving on a century and a half, like most visitors to Hanoi, we make our way to the Ho Chi Minh Museum and Mausoleum, and wonder around looking at the photos of this man of the early 20th century who it seems was really a man of the people – more sailor/lascar than elite of Cambridge or LSE. It is quite tiring in the heat. After finding some warmish fresh coconut water by the One Pillar Pagoda, and a coffee and sandwich at some sort of café chain, we find the energy to continue to Uncle Ho’s “humble abode”. Ho Chi Minh – remains a hero; not tarnished by time and horrors like Stalin and Mao. He has a slightly saintly look, and his home is plain and simple, more Gandhi than Stalin. Just a couple of rooms built in wood and on stilts. No love of grandeur – neither pomp nor ostentation.


It is hard not to be struck by the longevity of the Communist Party of Vietnam, symbolised by the mausoleum buildings, reminiscent of Havana more than Beijing – swapping Uncle Ho for Jose Marti.  The roots of Communism in Vietnam are in the resistance to French colonialism from much before the 2nd WW. But in many ways this Communism is just a continuation of the old Confucian culture. After the collapse of Japan’s Asian Empire in 1945, the north quickly declared its independence with Communist Party, Ho Chi Minh, in charge. De Gaulle’s determination to re-establish colonialism after the war, by force if need be quickly alienated many and no doubt strengthened this local communism. This victory before long kicked off the “American War”, which only ended in 1975 when the tanks of the communist north finally entered Saigon.

Communism in its Chinese form continues despite the end of the Cold War, the dismantling of the Soviet Union, the old ally, as in neighbouring Laos and China too. In Vietnam, according to Bill Hayton, the BBC’s man in Hanoi, the Communist Party is determined to remain the sole source of authority. “Everything depends upon the Communist Party maintaining coherence and discipline at a time when challenges to stability are growing by the day”. In that way, it looks more like China and from the stories I read, the Party controls things in the same way –  freedom on a leash. Perhaps our little hidden away Hanoi hotel owner symbolises this. On the one hand crazy artist and dancer, but with his roots in the secret police hanging out with artists and dancers to ensure they didn’t go off track.

Like in Cambodia, there was a period of harsh control but it seems to have been a great deal shorter. It took just two years to decide that collectivization of farms wasnt going to work. In fact Vietnam did rather well taking the learning from the famous International Rice Research Institute of the Philippines. Contrast this with Pol Pot’s “idealism” that let millions starve, and the fear and oppression of the time.

In economic terms, it is a miracle. It’s GDP per capita (with purchasing lower parity) is at $6100 per annum, and PWC’s 2008 report put it at one of the fastest growing emerging economies in the world. It predicted that by 2040 it could have an economy 70% of that of the UK.  However, despite all the talk of Vietnam as a rising dragon benefitting from liberalization and FDI, that does not seem to have been the facilitating factor. World Bank efforts to encourage liberalisation including $300mill in structural adjustment credits in 1997 were for many years just turned down.  The country was making enough from exports and commercial foreign investment to not need cash.  Deal after deal was rejected, and for a while Vietnam held out perhaps giving its local businesses a chance.  Eventually things moved on and there has been greater liberalization and private enterprise promoted.

Though there are plenty of big foreign companies based here, apparel to heavy industry – European to Taiwanese – many charming boutiques in Hanoi andhanoi-street rather a lot of tourism, state ownership remains widespread. The party can still control the economy through state owned enterprises. The law has categorized businesses into 4 different groups and in 1 – with 16 business sectors – 100% state ownership is required. These include electricity, irrigation, railways and air terminals. In the lowest category – including water/sewerage and chemicals and fertilisers 50-65% Government ownership is required. The Government’s strategy includes making Vietnam a centre of ship building amongst other things. So it has a planned economy at least.

Compared say with Cambodia where one is immediately hit by the kids that would like just $1 –  or Manila, the absence of visible poverty is striking. Whether this is the result of a China style hukou policy or a smooth rise into the ranks of middle income countries, is not too clear. Its more a country of bikes than the inequality of big cars and worthless pedestrian. See here – Hanoi on a Friday night.


Modern Vietnam also has a sense of freedom and a sense of the rule of law. It appears to have a strong civil society with legal challenges allowed against the Government, judicial review provided for since 1996. Though apparently the grounds for challenge are “legality”, rather narrow. However, Hayton challenges this too. The Party doesn’t really tolerate dissent – though perhaps more about Confucianism than Communism here.

Perhaps there is too much order, too much of a drive towards modernity, too much short termism. At Halong, there is a series of glass box waiting rooms for the 300-400 junks licensed to ply the water – more Gatwick. Minibus after minibus pull up to collect the previous nights occupants and take the new ones onto the boats. Lunch breaks are at the vast Viet style service stations where you can buy pricy artisanal products – but anything from expensive lacquered bowls to ceramics apparently dug out of some ancient shipwreck. Bill Hayton takes away some of the pleasure– saying they have found quick ways to lacquer – more car spray than layers and layers of resin, and clever ways of turning ordinary ceramics into century old stuff.

But the junks are beautiful: wooden boats, with wood floors and decks, spaces for Tai Chi, cozy rooms and delicious food; and the marine water looks clean enough. We hear the government is not too keen on wood  – before long they will all be metal. It plans to expand the number of junks on the water too, and move the boat dwellers onto dry land. they are at risk from the typhoons that batter this coastline for sure and no doubt their presence leads to pollution of the water. But there is a risk of soullessness and loss of the feel of the local community. Is this the westerner in me talking? I hope we will get a bit of a rethink here – character, heritage, identity are invaluable for the national psyche in my view and need not be lost. Pride in ones history and culture is an intangible asset that mustn’t be lost. How about the fascination with modernity being channeled into keeping the water as clean as possible, the boats as energy efficient and pollution free as can be done?



Its not only this but the evidence suggests that the water isn’t as clean as it should be, the environment not as protected as it could be. Junks discharge sewage into the water, mangroves along the edges are destroyed for neatness, over-fishing continues at a disastrous level, factories pollute the rivers, a new shipping terminal for no good reason has been squeezed into Halong City. The conservation minded bureaucrats in Hanoi seem to have lost the battle against those looking for growth.


I am beginning to see now why the Hampstead set are rushing to Halong Bay. Best to visit now before this rather lovely world is lost.


Better together or better apart?

imageNever an easy answer! I suspect our stronger instinctive response is to want to be free of the big bureaucracy of Brussels. How very appealing is the nimbleness of a small country able to set it’s own rules and develop it’s own relationships.

Having been a Government lawyer and seen much badly drafted EU law and the difficulty of change in this big beast of an institution, I share some of the frustrations with the EU.

Some of us Greens are also more wedded to the local and the international – worried about fortress Europe that keeps out imports from poorer countries, gives a home to Poles and Spaniards rather than refugees from war-torn countries.

But what are the risks and what is the reality of the counterfactual? We need to understand what may really happen if the UK is to break loose from this regional bloc.

We have another powerful instinct too – to collaborate and work closely with others. We all recognise how hard it is, but this may be what we need to do.

For me, there are five easy reasons to stay and support a regional trade area:

  1. In our globalised world, many areas of law need to be regional or even global. Without the EU, the chances of a race to the bottom on standards is high. EU standards have been developed from product safety to energy labelling, and investments made in urban-industrial infrastructure including waste water treatment and pollution control from factories driven by EU law. With all member states obliged to address these issues, we don’t have to worry about those extra costs creating a competitive disadvantage regionally.
  2. By operating as a global bloc on environmental and human rights issues, the EU has more clout and strength. Just look at the UK’s recent forays into China, and climb-downs on human rights issues. By having a joint position on Climate Change, I suspect the EU has also helped shift the centre ground.
  3. The UK depends on the EU for a large proportion of its exports (about 50%). If it were to leave the EU but seek to be part of the common market, it has two entirely unsatisfactory options:
    • a Norway solution where it accepts all EU law plus freedom of movement of capital, people, establishment plus payment of funds, but without taking part in drafting the law or rules on spending money, or
    • negotiating an EFTA-type deal like Switzerland for which it may need to make similar compromises.

If the UK goes its own way, operating by WTO rules, it will face tariffs and non-tariff barriers from the EU. To take the example of vehicles, considering the large investments in car manufacturing in the UK, imports from Canada are subject to tariffs in the region of 10%.  Do we want to take the risk of relocation with the hope that we will be able to negotiate better trade deals with countries outside the EU? And maybe our trade deals will be worse considering the smaller market on offer.

4.   Interaction and exposure to the EU helps create, in my view, a more dynamic UK economy – it allows the UK to benchmark itself, and learn from others and to make use of a wider market for innovative products. Sitting here in Hong Kong, the disadvantages to business of a small market in terms of innovation is apparent, as is the lack of interaction with others. I am not convinced that being alone, seemingly free and nimble, supports dynamism in business or in social and cultural policy and activity.

5.  On the international stage, the EU supported by the principles of the European Convention of Human Rights, which accession countries have had to sign up to, has helped entrench the values of social democracy. At home, the EU has taken important steps in protecting the rights of women in the workplace, and non-discrimination in the workplace and other fields. And abroad, the EU is seen as a voice in favour of democracy and human rights. How much weaker would EU states be if all operated on their own? We already see this weakness when the UK strikes out on its own – its relationship with Saudi or China.

What of those downsides – the big bureaucracy, a juggernaut on a course that’s hard to alter, law made behind closed doors in Brussels, money doled out in structural funds for unnecessary projects, subsidies to farmers and not urban dwellers, and operating a common market at the expense of poorer countries? Of course, the EU is not perfect – far from it. But nor is national government – it is also also open to capture by vested interests and in my view is more short-termist and populist than the more technocratic EU Commission.

Improvement is needed to make the EU what it should be. But before you veer towards Out, we are moving in that direction. My 5 points on this change and further change needed are:

  • The principle of subsidiarity is accepted but it needs to be developed and refined. In my view, EU law has become less prescriptive in recent years. The bigger problem may be the UK’s focus on defeating proposals for new EU law, rather than seeking to design the law or make what it can make of a regional bloc and regional regulations. Where there is flexibility, and there is plenty, the UK could use it rather than tie its hands to its no gold-plating position.
  • The law is not made behind closed doors – there is an elected Parliament which is now more powerful, and our Government like all others sits in the Council and has its appointments to the Commission. The public and NGOs have to raise their game in influencing it, getting to know their MEPs better, how the European Parliament works, and feed into Government consultations on EU law.
  • The criteria and priorities for structural funds need reviewing and perhaps less money should be allocated this way.
  • A long hard discussion is needed about the taboo subjects: freedom of movement, freedom of establishment and agricultural policy too.  Sadly, it may be the current refugee crisis that prompts a review of freedom of moment.
  • No assumptions should be made about the benefits of continuing to expand the EU or continuing to push to open markets further. There may be an optimum size and we may have reached it. There may also not be good reasons for forcing open the market for services – that also needs consideration.

Through Eastern Eyes – the Ancient Khmer Kingdom

Angkor WatHow far is what we see filtered by the reference points we have?  Here I explore the ancient Khmer Kingdom, part of the Indian Diaspora of the first millennium AD, doing my best to look at it through Eastern eyes – Indian to be precise.

Cambodia is the country of the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot, the country of the Khmer Empire with its capital at Angkor, and the home of the lower levels of the great Mekong River. Just those thoughts, make me pause with wonder and an element of fear.

As a traveller I am interested in the “in-between spaces”, both geographically and historically. In Cambodia, those spaces are huge – the unknown flat land where dark fields stretch seemingly barren as far as the eye can see, the giant Tonle Sap freshwater lake, where some of the waters of the Mekong back up rather than flowing to the sea. The historical space – what is Angkor beyond a city established by Hindu King Jayavarman I and with a famous temple built by Khmer King Suryavarman II in the C12th –  is also largely unknown.

Through Eastern Eyes
On entering Angkor Wat, my first surprise was to step into what seemed like India in design and sculpture, taking me immediately to my time in India over the years – from Varanasi to Madurai, Somnathpur to Kerala. A reminder of the dark and dusty museums across the country that display artefacts that tell us little of the stories of history. I visited temples in temple towns and little Tamil villages where outsiders rarely passed. I puzzled over the bronzes and stone sculpture of Mauryas and Kalingas, Pallavas and Cholas, Hoysala and Chalukya, trying to discern something of the shifting cultures and regimes beyond the quality of artisanal skill. I’ll try and situate Angkor, insofar as one can in the Indian diaspora of the first millennium after Christ.

The second revelation was that the Ancient Angkor Kingdom had been the largest state of antiquity covering most of South East Asia – including Laos, large parts of Vietnam and Thailand. Even Angkor was huge. The city of London or the Mayan city of Tikal would have been mere dots in comparison. A visitor to Angkor to a large extent is a witness to how trees like muscular “nagas” (snakes in Cambodian mythology) can destroy old life and create new life – monochromatic, and voiceless except for the sounds of birds and crickets, but new life all the same. In some ways, it is a warning to us all. Our time will come and pass, as a slightly drunk Nicaraguense once told me in an Antigua, Guatemala bar, almost tearful over the Central American experience at the hands of the richer more powerful El Norte. But what caused the decline? Cambodia had almost disappeared by the early C19th. Environmental degradation, warfare, and the cult of the God-king tend to be the 3 main contenders.

The third striking fact is the easy fusion of different Indian sects – Shaivite and Vaishnavite – as well as Buddhist, similar to the sites of ancient Sri Lanka combined with the stark absence of the female gods of India. There is an almost complete absence of the female pantheon: Saraswati – Goddess of Knowledge, Music and the Creative Arts – Laxmi – Goddess of Wealth and Prosperity (both material and spiritual) but also a life force and destructor, and Parvati – fertility, love and devotion, central to the goddess-oriented Shakta sect. With the downfall of the Khmer empire, Cambodia embraced Theravada Buddhism – a purer form of Buddhism more focused on a good life and good deeds. Was the essentially male god-king cult unstable? How much difference does religion make to the stability and strength of a civilization?

I will look at the first and third issue – the second is too large. Perhaps a topic for another blog.

An Earlier Indian Era
Though the people of Cambodia were originally Mons from China, Cambodia’s story is entwined with that of the culture of East and Southern India. Despite the proximity to China, Indian culture would dominate South East Asia much the same way that great swathes of Europe were influenced by the Greeks. The various Indian empires from say 1500BC to 1400AD, it seems were not colonisers or empire builders, not set on demanding tribute of its vassal states as was common in China.

The Indian influence is apparent from the moment of entering Angkor Wat when you come face to face with a 6-arm statue of the God Vishnu after walking across the causeway. This causeway crosses “the baray”, a constructed lake, what in India would be called a “tank”, full of dark pink lotus flowers, dusky in the early morning sunshine. On entering the main building, you will see the depiction of the wars of the Mahabharat.

C12th 6-armed Vishnu – Suryavarman II – Entrance To Angkor Wat


From where does this Indian influence stem from and what period of time? Even before the first millennium AD, ships leaving India for China would have cut through the straits by modern Singapore and then headed up past Cambodia and Vietnam and into the South China Sea. Its not a history as neatly documented and understood as you may think. This may seem a minor mystery compared to the larger questions of how some aspects of this culture travelled around the Pacific to Central America, but still, it remains quite unknown.

The Mystery of Funan
Well before the time of Angkor, in the early centuries of the millennium, it appears there was an established kingdom in the region – called Funan (1st – 7th century). Its capital was close to where Phnom Penh is now. Funan appears to have been a seafaring empire with a navy well-connected to the outside world and, according to the Chinese scholars that visited, it had large libraries. Sadly these are now turned to dust leaving much about this civilization to supposition.


It is to this region that Indian merchants and traders arrived, probably followed by priests. Sanskrit was used as the language of the court and learning, and Chinese visitors recorded seeing vast libraries in Sanskrit. This suggests the influence of the Vedic north of India not the Dravidian South. However, Khmer itself is written in a language of the Pallavas of the Indian South, who we will come to later.

The merchants and traders may have originated from the Kalinga empire(1300BC – 200AD) around modern day Orissa with a long coastline, at times covering almost all of India. You may have heard about the more famous Mauryas and Emperor Ashoka’s deadly battle in around 250BC, before he became a pacifist Buddhist. The battle was against the Kalinga Empire, incorporated by Ashoka into his Mauryan Empire after this battle, gaining independence again after its decline. The Kalingas appear to have been Jain rather than Buddhist, and then later Hindu. The famous temples of Puri are within this region, and they would have taken on board elements of Buddhism too which dominated in the time of Emperor Asoka.

A Matriarchal History?

Interestingly in the latter part of the Funan era, around around 613 AD, Funan had a princess named Liuye or Soma – hard to say whether she was a princess or a Queen. It seems that Queen Liu Ye married the predecessor of the kings of the Khmer era. Sadly of course we get to read little about this queen – only of whom she marries.  Was there an element of matriarchal culture in indigenous Cambodian culture? Did it take some ideas from the more strongly matriarchal South of India?

In the time of Funan, the Indians from the north were unlikely to have been alone, or may not have been the dominant force. There were most probably traders and others from the Southern empires – Pallava, then Chola – reflecting the dominant empire of the time. Some of these states had stronger matriarchal traditions. Perhaps the Kalinga traders were followed by people from the Pallava (6 – 9th centuries) and then Chola (9th -12th century) states in the South.

Then there would also have been indirect influences from Java, in the South, and even Sri Lanka, both within the wider Indian diaspora.

The Founding of Angkor: its Indian Influence
This sprawling city is generally dated to the 9th century, when Jayavarman II moved upstream from the Mekong to found a city on this site, crowning himself as a deva-raja or “god-king” in 802 A.D. Why he chose to do so is unclear – floods or threats from outsiders. Remember the world was in another period of climatic change at the time.

Religion and Culture
What we do know is that the Khmer civilization from around 800AD to 1400AD would have inherited much from its Funan and Chenla predecessors (between the 2 periods). A form of Hinduism (Saivism), later in combination with Mahayana Buddhism dominated. This is evident from the temples, However, unlike Indian temples the sculptures of the Gods have the faces of the kings.

Other than the iconography, there is little evidence of other aspects of Hinduism like a rigid caste structure. Though perhaps that was not as rigid a part of Indian culture as it later became. Some elements of the Vedic Law of Manu may have been taken on board.

Understanding the influences of India is a challenge with the waves of Indian influence from different parts of India and their differing cultures and religious beliefs. The happy mixing of Buddhist and Vaishivite iconography seem quite different from India, though this is to be found in Sri Lanka.

The striking aspect is the metamorphosis of Hinduism into the religion of the God-King. As I mentioned before, an Indian visitor, the absence of female representations other than in the form of apsaras – however beautiful – is also noticeable.

In the end, it was Theravada Buddhism less institutionalized and hierarchical that held sway. It was brought by the Thai invaders in the C14th.  The links with the sub-continent weakened. One of the most beautiful sights of the country remains the saffron robed Buddhist monks, standing in ancient doorways, carrying orange umbrellas, chatting in groups in the course of their everyday life.

But what difference did this new religion make? Some historians contend that the gentle Theravada Buddhism undermined the system. It weakened the loyalty to the God-King and reduced its militarism. But its swift dominance may have been the result of dissatisfaction with the elitism of the God-King system? What about the limited female influences – was this destabilizing in itself? How different is Confucian China or northern Vietnam as a result of different religions and philosophies?

Water Management
Another aspect of the closeness of the cultures – Indian and Khmer – is the system of water management that allowed Angkor to thrive despite the seasonality of rainfall. Large storm water “tanks” were built some just around the city.

Considerable areas of land may have been irrigated, with the resultant capacity to produce 2-3 crops a year and freeing up labour to be spent on construction of the massive temples. The questions of whether the baray were to irrigate the land or whether the civilisation managed on rainfed fields is hotly debated amongst western historians. The original report by French archaeologist Henri Mouhot (1860) suggested considerable irrigation. Groslier in the early 1950s developed the idea of a hydraulic city. Other archaeologists in the 1980s condemned this idea suggesting that the water tanks were for ritual and religious purposes. They argued that Hinduism demanded a system of reflecting pools for its Gods. It was the inherent weakness of the God-King system, disliked in the end by the people, that they say led to the downfall. Do they see this world through a Western lens?

The consensus now appears to be that Cambodia had a well-developed irrigation system, surpassing any similar system in India, though not dependent on the baray. So the collapse of the irrigation system may well have played a part.

Construction and Architecture

So what is the origin of the architecture of Angkor? The similarities with the Pallavas, with their capital in Mahabalipuram, is striking. The stories of the founding of the Khmer Empire (Brahman and Naga Princess) is surprisingly similar. The Pandyas from the South were seafaring people, with their capital in Madurai, that no doubt also influenced South Asia. Some of the decorative work however looks closer to the sculpture of the Hoysala and Chalukya civilisations closer west into the Deccan Plateau.

Temple at Mahabalipuram: Pallava Empire (C3-9th AD)




It is the Chola Empire (900AD – 1200AD), at the same time as the height of the Khmer Empire, that spread the Indian culture most widely: from the Malay Peninsula and into Java and Bali. Even today Bali remains Hindu if a Hinduism of its own form and variety. The Cholas were Shaivites with less interest in Buddhism and Jainism than some of the other empires. Their capital was at Thanjavur, home of temples of superlative design and sculpture.


So as you can see it is difficult to get an objective sense of the source of the influence. Historians from the south and north spar to show the influence of their region. Nevertheless the vast inter-connection between the Indian sub-continent and South East Asia is apparent.

In part this was direct, but also indirect as the Javanese were also expansionist in their aims, and may have brought their variation of Hinduism with them. The dominance of Theravada Buddhism after the Angkor period is also generally explained as Sri Lankan influence in Java and beyond.

Chola empire

Conclusions: An Indian Millennium
Like the Western modernity that dominated and spread from around 1500, it seems there was an earlier modernity, of Indian character that we know little about. The written scripts that seemed to have existed have not survived at least not in the area. The relations between the different parts of Asia, how religion melded and evolved, the extent of trade and movement of people, Chola influence compared with Pallava, are just some of the issues that arise. I also wonder how the pantheon of Hindu Gods lost the trilogy of female gods and what this meant to the local culture? How did religion impact on the state?

All of these issues still need further study. Maybe one day, those artefacts in the dusty museums will tell us a story of culture and civilization