Freed after three months of detention, a Lao land activist defended her efforts to press for government compensation for land taken over from villagers for a road project.
Sivanxay Phommarath told RFA’s Lao Service that she had been released last Friday after paying a 700,000 kip (U.S. $88) fine and promising that she and her husband Soukphaouane Phommarath would refrain from taking part in any “unlawful” actions.
Sivanxay was detained in October last year after she led a more than 20 people from Khammouane province’s Nhommalath district to meet with an unknown person in Savannakhet province the group believed would help them get better compensation for land being taken over for a road expansion.
After finding no one at the planned meeting spot—on a bridge over the Mekong River on the Thai-Lao border—the villagers returned home to Nhommalath but were taken into custody for questioning from authorities on the reason for their trip.
When Sivanxay refused to divulge information about the person she was supposed to meet, she was charged with inciting social disorder and taken to the Khammouane provincial prison on Nov. 19.
Authorities gave no explanation for her sudden release Friday after being held incommunicado.
Despite the lengthy detention and her group’s failure to find help in their battle for compensation, Sivanxay said she had no regrets about her actions.
“Indeed I am glad,” she said. “It does not matter whether I get my land back or not, I don’t have any regrets.”
“I did my best—I fought for the sake of several people. I am proud of what I did.”
She said the conditions set by the authorities for her release stipulated that she and her husband “will not make any propaganda, incite groups of people to carry out unlawful acts in any way, will be good citizens socially and will not break any Lao laws.”
Officials representing Nhommalath district had met with Sivanxay and other villagers in August to present offers of compensation for land needed for the road expansion project near the Nam Theun 2, Laos’s largest hydroelectric dam, according to a source living in Seattle with contacts in the area.
The Nam Theun 2 Dam, built on a tributary of the Mekong River, has been producing electricity for sale to Thailand and into the Laos grid since March 2010, following the resettlement of 6,300 people living in the assigned reservoir area on Laos’s Nakai Plateau.
Though Sivanxay parted with one parcel of her family’s land and received compensation, she refused to vacate a second parcel adjoining the proposed site of construction, sources said.
Khampouvanh Xayalath, the Nhommalath district officer who had called villagers to the August meeting, said that Sivanxay and her husband had “issues” with district authorities about land.
Since all land in Laos is owned by the state, residents can be forced off their land with little or no compensation as they are pushed out to make room for development projects.
Lawmakers have expressed concern that inadequate land surveys ahead of major development projects have led to a rash of complaints over encroachment on villagers' land and created a range of environmental problems, according to the state-owned Vientiane Times newspaper.
During the last session of Laos’s parliament, the National Assembly, at the end of the year, lawmakers debated a new draft of a national land policy strategy aimed at eradicating loopholes relating to land disputes and addressing disagreements between residents and officials over compensation, according to the paper.
Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.