A group of villagers in southern Laos who were detained after demanding local officials address a land dispute with a rubber plantation have been released, sources said Thursday, amid calls for a national review of concession policies.
The seven residents of Yeub village in Sekong province’s Thateng district were detained two weeks ago, local sources speaking on condition of anonymity told RFA.
Shortly before their detention, the group had approached district and provincial officials to demand better compensation for their land from the Vietnamese company that had been granted a concession for the rubber plantation.
Six of the activists were released on Tuesday after one was released last week.
“They are now at home,” an official from the Sekong governor’s office said Thursday.
Local officials contacted by RFA initially said the villagers had been detained for conducting themselves in a disorderly fashion, but later said the group had only been questioned about their grievances.
“We just invited them to our office to ask what was going on, and they came on their own,” the same official said.
Thateng District Chief Khamsone Konyer said earlier this week, “It was not an arrest; it was just an investigation and interrogation of the villagers because they lodged a complaint with the ministry. We just want to the reasons behind their grievances.”
One local source said officials were holding and interrogating the group in a bid to find out which members of the village were organizing others to call for protection of their land rights.
Provincial Governor Khampheuay Bouttavong, however, denied any detentions had occurred.
“It’s not true; it’s just slander…. We haven’t arrested anybody or detained anyone. This never happened,” he said earlier this week.
The Yeub villagers’ dispute goes back to 2006, when the Lao government granted the Vietnamese company the concession.
Villagers opposed the concession and turned to local authorities for help in demanding better compensation, but their appeals produced no results.
They submitted a petition to the National Assembly, or Laotian parliament, which responded by assigning provincial agencies to look into the dispute. But the villagers still saw no changes and were again forced to engage local authorities.
“There was a letter of grievance on this issue sent to the National Assembly and local authorities were directed to resolve it,” an official at the assembly office confirmed.
He added that the assembly is now seeing a rash of complaints about land grabs and land rights.
The villagers’ release came as the Ministry of Planning and Investment announced a four-year suspension on new land concessions for rubber plantations and new mining licenses due to concerns about land encroachment.
Inadequate land surveys ahead of major development projects have led to a rash of complaints over encroachment on villagers' land and created a range of environmental problems, the state-owned Vientiane Times quoted officials as saying.
The investments have affected the environment and now the country has little land left for investors, a senior official at the Planning and Investment Ministry told RFA in an interview.
"Land management is getting more complicated because most commercial plantations need large plots of land in one piece, but what we have is smaller plots scattered all over. It’s becoming harder to get a large piece of land for investors,” the official said.
“So we are suspending the concessions and will do some more surveys. We may open them up again in 2015.”
The announcement was followed by calls from the National Assembly Wednesday for a countrywide review on land concessions.
Human rights groups welcomed the moratorium on land concessions, but warned that it was not the first time Laos had made plans to suspend them.
Much of Laos’s economic growth has come from land concessions for natural resources—including timber, agricultural products, minerals, and energy—but some worry that it comes at a cost for those who lose their land.
As one of the least developed Southeast Asian states, Laos has become the subject of massive foreign investment, especially from companies from neighboring China, Thailand, and Vietnam.
According to the Vientiane Times, since 1998 the government has approved nearly U.S. $25 billion of investment—mostly foreign and concentrated in the mining, hydropower and agricultural sectors.
Since all the land in Laos is owned by the state, residents can be forced off their land with little or no compensation as they are pushed out to make room for development projects.
Reported by RFA’s Lao service. Translated by Max Avary and Somnet Inthapannha. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.