Updated at 07:30 A.M. EST on 2014-04-12
A Chinese developer is moving to seize additional land from farmers in northern Laos for the construction of an international airport as part of a casino complex, according to the farmers who have prevented the developer from carrying out any survey work in the area.
The rare standoff last week marks the second time in three months that the rice farmers from Thonepheung district in Bokeo province stood firm as policemen armed with AK-47 assault rifles moved to enforce an order by the King Romans (Dok Ngiew Kham) Group to develop the land.
King Romans originally wanted to take 236 hectares (583 acres) from 46 farmer families in six villages in return for compensation well below market value, but last week the developer announced plans to extend the area required for the project by an additional six hectares (15 acres).
Angered by the potential loss of additional rice fields, the farmers on April 3 prevented King Romans officials from measuring out the new parcel of land under the protection of armed guards, villagers told RFA’s Lao Service recently.
They said that farmers angrily shouted: “Don’t measure! Don’t measure! Stop! Stop!” as the officials attempted to set up their equipment to survey the land.
While the confrontation occurred, villagers said, officials took pictures of the farmers, but would not allow themselves to be photographed, prompting one woman to ask, “Why do the officials have the right to take our photos?”
After a prolonged standoff during which the villagers refused to retreat, the situation was resolved when police and developer officials pledged to forgo the additional land confiscation, though the villagers said they remain on edge.
Citizen video of the standoff was posted on several social media sites after the confrontation, garnering support from sympathetic netizens.
Villagers said that officials are now working to get them to accept compensation for the original parcel of land by the start of the Lao New Year on April 14 and have been “keeping a close eye” on the farmers.
The 46 families have refused compensation from King Romans of around 100,000 Thai baht (U.S. $3,100) per rai (less than half an acre) of land, according to officials, and farmers contend that the rice fields to be taken for the project are valued at more than three times that amount.
The rice fields covering 235.6 hectares are part of 1,000 hectares (2,471 acres) granted by Lao authorities to King Romans for the development of the airport, as well as golf courses and entertainment projects.
Villagers told RFA that the compensation will not be enough for them to purchase the amount of farmland necessary to meet their needs, but that authorities have threatened those who do not accept the package with imprisonment.
“We need to get more compensation so that we can buy new plots of land, but the company and government officials do not accept our demands,” one villager told RFA, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“Reasonable compensation needs to be made because the value of land never decreases,” he said.
Another villager, who also asked not to be named, said that the government was breaking the law in supporting King Romans’ interests, which center on the casino-driven Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone (SEZ) project, almost exclusively catering to Chinese investors.
“Legally, rice field land must not be developed for other purposes, but the officials are flouting the law,” he said.
“It is not the people who are wrong, it is the officials.”
An official told RFA that the exact amount of compensation had not been settled yet.
“We have not paid compensation yet,” he said, adding, “We are measuring the area and collecting information and then we will compensate the villagers.”
Villagers have suggested that King Romans has pushed for district officials to move quickly on the airport land because Deputy Prime Minister Somsavat Lengsavad, who has backed the project, is expected to retire next year.
They accused the local authorities of being on the company’s payroll and rewarded according to the amount of land they can secure.
The one-party Lao communist government in 2007 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.
Plans for the international airport project—which will affect the villages of Phonehom, Donmoun, Phiengyam, Mokkachok, Khouan and Sibouheung—were not made public until early 2013, after the Lao government signed a memorandum of understanding with the company.
In January, the farmers 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.
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.
Reported by Ounkeo Souksavanh for RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Ounkeo Souksavanh. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.