Work began on the controversial Laos-China railway as crews started clearing the right-of-way in the ancient Lao city of Luang Prabang late last month, but questions over who will get the bulk of the jobs building the $6 billion project and how much people displaced by the construction will get paid still linger.
“After the construction was officially opened in a ceremony on Dec. 25, the company is gearing up for construction,” Fasanan Thammavong, director general of Luang Prabang province’ public works and transport department told RFA’s Lao Service. It was not clear if the company he was referring to is the main Chinese partner, the state-owned China Railway Corporation, or the bilateral project.
While Fasanan told RFA that his department was reaching out to the people affected by the construction, he admitted that they were still ironing out the final details.
“Our duty is to cooperate and negotiate with the affected people for the government,” he said. “In Luang Prabang, the number of affected families as well as compensations are not finalized yet, and more details are being collected and studied.”
The Lao parliament approved the high-speed railway project in 2012 amid hopes that it would lower the cost of exports and consumer goods while boosting investment in the poverty-stricken nation, but the project has faced numerous setbacks.
Some of those setbacks are now in the railway’s rearview mirror, but residents who will lose land and other property to the rail project have yet to receive any compensation.
And while officials told RFA that Lao workers would be hired to operate the heavy equipment, he declined to say how many Chinese workers will be employed to build the project.
Who gets the work?
“They hired Lao workers to use heavy equipment to clear the land,” he said. “So far only the Chinese technical team is here. Their workers are not here yet.”
It has been previously reported that more than 50,000 mostly Chinese workers will be hired to build the project.
A source in Oudomxay province’s Xay district told RFA that four villas are being built to accommodate Chinese workers in area, and that about 100 Chinese workers are already in the province, ant they are gearing up for the railway’s construction there.
Fasanan told RFA that he was unsure how many Laos would be hired in his district.
“I do not know more details on the Lao workers who will work on the project,” he said.
Minister of Labor and Social Welfare Khampheng Saysompheng recently told local media that his ministry has yet to be told about the make-up of the workforce.
“We still don't know what kinds of skills are needed,” he said after a December meeting in Vientiane of the cabinet, Vientiane mayor and provincial governors, according to the Vientiane Times.
Labor issues have been a topic of debate since the plan to build the U.S. $6 billion railway was proposed, and compensation for people displaced by the railroad has also been a hot topic.
Little is known about what the government plans to do, however.
Another excuse for a government land grab?
Lao villagers attending a meeting in October promoting the project were blocked from asking questions about compensation and where they will be moved when displaced from their land, Lao sources told RFA at the time.
The Oct. 27 meeting brought together more than a hundred residents of Nathom, Nongviengkham, Donenoun, and other villages in the Xaythany district of Laos’ capital Vientiane, and was convened by a district-level committee formed to boost the project, sources said.
Participants quickly came to feel that officials were ignoring their concerns, though, one woman who attended the meeting told RFA’s Lao Service.
“When the villagers wanted to ask questions, the authorities would not allow them to do so,” RFA’s source said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “So many of us became angry and left the meeting before it had really ended.”
Among the concerns that villagers had hoped to raise were questions over how their homes and property would be affected by the planned construction, when they would be forced to move, and how they would be compensated, the source said.
The seizure of land for development—often without due process or fair compensation for displaced residents—has been a major cause of protest in Laos and other authoritarian Asian countries, including China, Cambodia and Myanmar.
Landlocked Laos expects the railway’s 420-kilometer (261-mile) route through the country to lower the cost of exports and consumer goods while boosting socioeconomic development in the impoverished nation of nearly 7 million people. It is part of a longer railway that will extend southward through the Malay peninsula to Singapore.
Political and financial setbacks have delayed the Lao-China stretch of the railway. The original construction plan called for work to begin in 2011 and be completed in 2015, but the plans now call for the railway to be completed in 2021.
The planned single-track, standard- gauge rail network would have 33 stations, of which 21 would be operational initially, according to the Ministry of Public Works and Transport.
There will be 72 tunnels with a total length of 183.9 km, representing 43 percent of the project’s total length. The line will also have 170 bridges of 69.2 km, accounting for 15.8 percent.
Passenger trains will travel at a speed of 160 km per hour, while the speed of rail freight will be 120 km per hour.
Reported by RFA's Lao Service. Translated by Avary. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.