High-Ranking Provincial Official Involved in Land Grab in Northern Laos

laos-bulldozer-destroys-resturant-xieng-khouang-province-apr7-2015.jpg An armed guard watches a bulldozer destroy the Meuang Phoune restaurant in northern Laos' Xieng Khouang province, April 7, 2015.
(Photo courtesy of an RFA listener)

The governor of northern Laos’ Xieng Khouang province has appropriated nearly 6,000 square meters of land from a local villager to sell to the country’s central bank for the construction of a new bank building, according to a source with knowledge of the matter.

Somkod Mengnormek illegally took the land leased to Bouapha Phommachith, which housed the Meuang Phoune restaurant, to sell to the Lao central bank for U.S. $2 million, the source, who declined to be named, told RFA’s Lao Service.

“The governor ordered the local police to use a bulldozer to destroy the restaurant in April and detained two people who are relatives of the restaurant owner for 13 days for obstructing police,” the source said.

Photos of the restaurant’s demolition were posted on Facebook on May 3, she said.

“That area is state land that Ms. Bouapha has leased since 2005 when she signed a contract with the former governor,” the source said. “[Although] it expired in 2012, article 3 of the contract gives the lessee the right to renew the contract for two terms, which each runs for 15 years.”

When the former governor was in power, Bouapha did not have any problems with the authorities, and she paid her fee every year, he said.

But when Somkod became governor, he decided to sell the land to the central bank, the source said.

“I decided to lease the land for restaurant business because I have the right to renew the contract to continue my business,” Bouapha told RFA. “That that’s why I invested many billion kip in it. If I knew that the provincial governor would give me only a six-year contract, I would not have put such a huge amount of my money into it.”

Move off the land, or else...

The conflict started in 2012 when Somkod told Bouapha to move off the land or else the police would destroy the building.

After the restaurant was destroyed, Bouapha filed a claim for compensation for all the money she invested in the rented property and restaurant.

“We will implement the rule of law because the contract mentions that if a business operator cannot run the business effectively and successfully, the state will take the property [land and restaurant] back at the end of the contract,” Somvandy Sysouphanh, chairman of the province’s local committee in the district and one of the officials in charge of the case, told RFA.

Somvandy said he didn’t have information about Somkod's motives in seizing the property and transferring it to the central bank.

In early 2015, Bouapha submitted complaints to the Ministry of Justice, National Assembly (parliament) and the Government’s Office, formerly known as the Prime Minister’s Office.

After that, Ket Kiattisak, deputy minister of justice, sent a notice to Somkod to not destroy the restaurant until the conflict had been resolved, the source said. At the time, parliament’s petition department also had started working on the case.

In the meantime, Sonexay Siphandone, minister of the Government’s Office, sent an official letter to Somkod to implement the rule of law, the source said.

In Laos, where all land belongs to the state, several provincial governors and family members of national leaders have been involved in land grabs not only because the land in urban areas is expensive, but also because they can profit by selling the land to other people or companies that grow rubber plantations.

In August 2014, Sommaly Thammavong, the daughter-in-law of Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong was involved in a land-grab case in Saphanthong Tai village on in the capital Vientiane.

Rights groups say the illegal appropriations violate basic human rights, including the right to food, housing and prevention of forced eviction.

Reported by Ounkeo Souksavanh of RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Ounkeo Souksavanh. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

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