A Lao villager detained since July 2017 in a dispute over village land has died in custody, with relatives challenging government claims that the man had killed himself, Lao sources said.
Somsavanh, one of a group of 14 villagers in Sekong province held for obstructing workers and cutting down trees on land granted by the Lao government to a Vietnamese rubber company, died almost a month ago, the relative of another detainee told RFA’s Lao Service.
“A detention center officer told me that Somsavanh died in jail on Jan. 29, and that he had committed suicide,” RFA’s source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“But I believe that he must have been tortured to death, because I once saw bruises on his chest,” said the source, adding that Somsavanh’s funeral was later arranged by the authorities, leaving family members unable to participate or perform religious rites.
The residents of Yeub village in Sekong’s Thateng district have been fighting since 2006 for alternative land and additional compensation since the government took away their land in what is believed to have been a 50-year concession.
Several of those now held in detention were beaten or subjected to electric shocks in the days following their arrest, and many are now malnourished and in failing health, relatives told RFA in earlier reports.
Much of Laos’s economic growth is generated through land concessions for natural resources, including timber, agricultural products, minerals, and energy, even though these come at a cost for those who lose their land and many not receive proper compensation.
Land grabs and the appropriation of public property to turn over to foreign and domestic companies are common in Laos, and villagers affected by them often refuse to speak out publicly because they fear retribution.
In an Oct. 23, 2017 speech to Laos’s National Assembly, Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith said that loopholes in Lao land laws must be closed to ensure that the interests of the country’s common people are not ignored as “individuals and business groups” scramble for wealth.
Reported and translated by RFA’s Lao Service. Written in English by Richard Finney.