Authorities in southern Laos’s Sekong province have detained a man they believe encouraged fellow villagers to stand up for their land rights, sources said Friday.
Thateng district authorities took the man, a soldier from Yeub village, into custody on Tuesday, just after releasing a group of his fellow villagers the same day.
Seven Yeub villagers had been detained two weeks ago after they approached local authorities about a dispute over a land concession granted to a foreign company for a rubber plantation.
One was released last week, and the other six on Tuesday.
Authorities believe the detained soldier had organized the other villagers to demand better compensation for their land and helped them draft a petition sent to the government, a local source told RFA, speaking on condition of anonymity.
One source said earlier this week that officials had detained and interrogated the group in a bid to find out which members of the village were behind the activism.
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.
On Friday, authorities also denied the soldier had been detained.
“That report is not true… It’s not an arrest. Reports like this [including those about the first group of villagers detained] have been circulating and we have already corrected them,” an official at the Sekong provincial office said.
The Lao government granted the Vietnamese company the concession in Yeub in 2006.
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 Lao parliament, which responded by assigning provincial agencies to look into the dispute.
But the villagers saw no changes and again engaged local authorities.
The man’s detention came the same day as officials announced a four-year suspension on new land concessions for rubber plantations and new mining licenses due to concerns about land encroachment.
The announcement by the Ministry of Planning and Investment was followed by calls from the National Assembly Wednesday for a countrywide review on land concessions.
Human rights groups welcomed the moratorium, but warned that it was not the first time Laos has made plans to suspend land concessions.
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. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.