An international airport project scheduled for construction by a Chinese developer in northwestern Laos’s Bokeo province has been canceled so that an airport built earlier in the province may be upgraded instead, sources say.
The abandoned project was to have been built on land taken by the King Romans Group from local villagers in 2014, a move leading to standoffs between angry farmers and armed guards sent to enforce the order to seize the land.
Speaking to RFA’s Lao Service this week, a Lao government official confirmed the project had been canceled.
“[Project owners] will not pursue construction and are canceling the work because the government plans to upgrade the provincial airport in Bokeo,” Somboun Daosawan, a manager in charge of airports at the Ministry of Public Works and Transport, said.
“We have proposed that only that airport can be used in Bokeo,” he said.
A Lao official responsible for the Chinese-developed special economic zone the new airport would have served also said that work on the project would now stop.
“Technical officials in the Civil Aviation Department now see that the [proposed] airport is not in the right location,” Chanthavy Phothisane, vice chairman of the provincial committee for special economic zones, said.
“Instead, they are planning to improve the provincial airport,” he said.
The King Romans special economic zone (SEZ), incorporating land granted for 99 years in concession by the Lao government, began construction in the early 2000s and now includes an international border checkpoint and river port, a casino, hotels, and a Chinatown market with around 70 restaurants and shops selling a variety of retail goods.
Plans for the international airport project, which affected several villages in Bokeo’s Tonepheung district, were not made public until early 2013, after the Lao government signed a memorandum of understanding with the company.
In January 2014, farmers fearing displacement defied orders to vacate their land, standing in front of bulldozers sent to flatten their rice fields and forcing armed police deployed by King Romans to retreat.
Chinese workers favored
Villagers uprooted by the project were poorly compensated and were refused employment in the SEZ, which favors workers brought in from China, Bounphone Heuangmany—a representative for Bokeo in Laos’s National Assembly—said on Oct. 26.
“I have said many times that the special economic zone has taken villagers’ farmland so that they have no means of livelihood left to them, and I have provided lists of names of local villagers who would like to work in the zone,” she said.
“But they are not recruited, because the SEZ gives priority in hiring to Chinese workers.”
Only about 300 Lao workers are now employed in the zone, while workers brought in from China and neighboring Myanmar number at least 6,000, Chanthavy Phothisane said.
“Some say that local villagers are not good workers, but they are,” he said.
“It’s just that foreign workers are not choosy about the work they do, especially in the casino construction sites.”
Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Ounkeo Souksavanh. Written in English by Richard Finney.