Chinese mining firm demands ransom to free Lao gold diggers

The detentions have sparked an outcry on social media.
By RFA Lao
Chinese mining firm demands ransom to free Lao gold diggers In this screenshot from a video posted Aug. 17, 2023, villagers in Laos’ Luang Prabang province are seen locked in a 16-square-meter (26-square-foot) room after a Chinese mining company detained them for illegally digging for gold on the company’s concession.
Screenshot from ເວົ້າຈາພາສາຂ່າວ ver.8 Facebook

UPDATED at 9:55 am EDT 8/24/23

A Chinese mining company in northern Laos’ Luang Prabang province has detained as many as 50 villagers for illegally digging gold on their concession and is demanding a ransom for their release, sparking an outcry on social media, according to residents of the area.

Employees of Tianjin Huakan Mining Investment, which operates in Pak Ou district, allegedly beat some of the detainees who were unable to pay the 10-15 million kip (US$520-775) for their freedom – an exorbitant amount for any worker in impoverished Laos, where the average annual income is around US$2,200.

“[The Chinese operators] detained 40-50 people and demanded that they pay 10 million kip,” said a resident of Pak Ou with connections to the mining sector who, like others interviewed for this report, spoke to RFA Lao on condition of anonymity citing security concerns.

“Some were unable to pay it and after a few days the owners changed it to 15 million kip,” he said. “There are a few local villagers among those detained.”

China is Laos’ top foreign investor, with a total investment of US$16.4 billion across 933 projects, according to a Ministry of Planning and Investment report from last year, and many Laotians say they are wary of the outsized influence Beijing has on their country.

Chinese investment mega projects include several hydropower dams, rare-earth mining explorations and the Laos-China high speed railway, which opened in December.

A source who works at the mine confirmed to RFA that he has seen Chinese employees detain Laotians discovered to be digging for gold at the site.

“The numbers are different every day – some days there are as many as 40-50 people in detention at a time,” he said. “They have to pay money to [the Chinese] before they can be released.”

The source said he had seen people released after their families paid a ransom, including “several last week.”

The situation prompted an outcry online after a villager posted a message about the detentions and beatings on social media last week that included images of a 16-square-meter (26-square-foot) room where people were being held.

A person who lives close to the mine told RFA that the post made her feel pity for the villagers and said she wants the government to protect villagers from harassment and detention by Chinese employees.

“I live far from there, but felt horrible about what happened to them,” she said.

Another villager from Pak Ou said that most of the detainees are from other parts of Laos and traveled to the area to dig gold to support their families. He said not many residents of the district take part in the digging because local authorities have warned people not to go to the site.

Authorities ‘investigating’ reports

A Luang Prabang official responsible for mining in the province said that authorities are looking into the situation at the concession.

“We’re still investigating the issue along with officials from other sectors,” he said. “We’re concerned about people making problems for the community.”

Tianjin Huakan Mining Investment began excavating gold in Pak Ou in 2015 on a 13-year concession site of 600 hectares (1,480 acres). In 2021, the company mined 90,000 tons of rock containing gold, but little of the wealth it generated has benefited the local community, residents said.

Villagers told RFA that this isn’t the first time employees of Tianjin Huakan have detained people for digging on company land.

In May 2020, Chinese employees detained three ethnic Hmong villagers and released them eight days later after their families paid ransoms of 5 million kip (US$260) each, they said.

Speaking to RFA, a Lao social commentator said that foreign investors have no right to detain villagers, regardless of what they are accused of.

“If villagers violate concession rights, they should answer to Lao authorities, not the investors,” he said. “This country has laws to protect Lao people.”

Translated by Sidney Khotpanya. Edited by Joshua Lipes and Malcolm Foster.

Updates to correct that company mined 90,000 tons of rock containing gold, not gold itself. 


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Aug 24, 2023 02:03 AM