In a rare act of resistance, dozens of rice farmers in northern Laos have defied armed police orders to vacate land seized by a Chinese company wanting to build an airport as part of a casino-driven special economic zone, according to villagers.
The 50-odd farmers refused to budge when policemen, armed with AK-47 assault rifles, moved on Friday to enforce an order by the King Romans (Dok Ngiew Kham) Group for the farmers to leave their rice fields to make way for the construction of the airport in Tonpheung district in Bokeo province.
The farmers, who have been cultivating paddy in the area for generations, defiantly stood in front of bulldozers sent to flatten their rice fields, forcing the company to seek police intervention.
"When the policemen arrived and told the villagers, 'Move out! Move out!,' the villagers angrily replied, 'No way, No way'," a villager told RFA's Lao Service.
"Why are the police and military, instead of helping the people, helping the 'Tiao Nai' traitors who are selling the nation’s land away," the villager asked, apparently referring to local high officials involved in the land deal with King Romans, which is building the airport as part of a Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone project almost exclusively catering to Chinese investors.
”We do not have money to buy land to cultivate a new rice field," one farmer was quoted saying to the police. "Once the rice fields have been taken away, we will have nothing left. It’s like having our hands and feet cut off.”
Following the farmers' refusal to budge, the police retreated at the weekend.
Not taking chances
But the farmers, who come from six villages in Tonpheung district, are not taking any chances. They are taking turns daily to guard their land round-the-clock to prevent the bulldozers from entering their rice fields.
"We will continue to keep vigil over our land," one villager said.
This is the second attempt by the Chinese company to clear the villagers' rice fields covering about 1,000 hectares (2,471 acres) for the airport project.
According to sources, King Romans had attempted to clear the land in 2012 but the villagers resisted, although the police were not called in at that time.
The one-party Lao communist government has conceded to King Romans 10,000 hectares (24,710 acres) of land—3,000 hectares (7,410 acres) of which are dedicated to the SEZ—for 99 years, with the objective of promoting trade, investment, and tourism.
The SEZ, which is tax exempt, began construction in the early 2000s and now includes an international border checkpoint and river port, the King Romans Casino, hotels, and a Chinatown market with as many as 70 restaurants and shops selling a variety of retail goods.
According to the villagers, the Chinese company offered to compensate them 110,000 Thai baht (U.S. $3,340) per rai (1,600 square meters)—30,000 baht (about U.S. $900) for the land and 80,000 baht (U.S. $2,429) for crop loss, but the offer was rejected as extremely low.
"Even 500,000 baht [U.S. $15,190] is still a small sum," one villager said, without stating clearly whether they would accept any higher compensation.
A local Lao official in Bokeo told RFA that the authorities will continue to negotiate with the farmers over the compensation although it is not clear when such talks will be held.
“First, the villagers wanted a compensation of one million baht [U.S. $30,370] per rai, then the figure came down to 500,000 baht [U.S. $15,190] but according to the Prime Minister's decree, the highest compensation the government can give is 114,000 baht [$U.S. 3,460] per rai,” the official said.
He said the villagers have stopped their protests and agreed to meet with officials over the compensation.
Reported by RFA's Lao Service. Translated by Somnet Inthapannha. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.