Three villagers from Laos‘ Luang Prabang province were who were recently detained for attempting to mine gold from land granted to a Chinese company in a concession agreement were freed after paying about U.S. $550 to police, local authorities told RFA.
The three, from Phapon village in Luang Prabang’s Pak Ou district, are of the Hmong ethnic minority. They were arrested April 14 and fined 5 million kip (U.S. $557), RFA’s Lao Service reported. At that time, RFA was unable to confirm a local report that they had been released.
“They have been released after they each paid 5 million kip to the soldiers who were safeguarding the cave [on the leased land],” a district official told RFA last week.
“In exchange, they will not be charged with taking minerals from the cave,” the official said.
The official added that after the three were released, the local authorities issued a warning to residents not to mine gold again in the area.
According to the official, first time offenders will be warned. Second time offenders will be fined between 150,000 and 500,000 kip ($16-56), and third time offenders will be fined the full 5 million. An inability to pay will be met with formal criminal charges.
“They were detained then released,” a neighbor of the three illegal miners confirmed to RFA.
The source said that the three were not the first villagers to attempt to dig gold from the property.
“In September or October last year, a number of villagers were also detained after some of them died,” said the source, referring to an incident in September where four entered the mine and were suffocated by fumes from their own mining equipment.
In an earlier incident in April 2019, dozens of villagers entered the cave and started mining, which caused a landslide that killed three. The two incidents resulted in the local authorities issuing a ban on villagers entering the concession entirely, with security forces posted to guard the mine.
The arrests and steep fines have scared some residents out of trying to dig themselves.
“Oh yes, I’m afraid of being fined. I’ve heard about people being arrested for digging,” a Pak Ou resident told RFA.
But even with the deaths and government warnings, poor, jobless villagers have been desperate enough to take the chance, hoping to strike it rich.
RFA contacted the district military office and the police department, but both refused to comment on the situation.
Much of Laos’s recent economic growth is generated through land concessions to China, Thailand and Vietnam for natural resources, including timber, agricultural products, minerals, and energy, but the policies have sparked friction over land taken without proper compensation, environmental pollution.
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.
Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Max Avary. Written in English by Eugene Whong.