The railway project that would link landlocked Laos with China has been touted as a benefit to the Lao economy because it will lower the cost of exports and consumer goods while boosting socioeconomic development in the impoverished nation of nearly 7 million people.
But the railway project, expected to be completed in 2021, has displaced more than 4,400 families from their land. Under Lao Decree 84 issued in April 2016, Lao citizens losing land to development projects must be compensated for lost income, property, crops, and plants.
However, many of these families have still not been compensated.
“Like many others [from our] village, we lost our pineapple farm to the railway project,” a young Lao man identified only by his first name Khalom told RFA’s Lao Service.
Khalom and his wife now live in Bangkok, Thailand, where they relocated for work after leaving Kok Ngiew Village, Luangprabang province three months ago. The couple left the rest of their family behind to become migrants out of necessity.
“We have been waiting for compensation for two years,” Khalom said. “Members of the Luangprabang People’s Council came and promised us last May that the government would pay us soon, but it’s been really quiet since then.”
“We had to come to Thailand because we don’t have any land to farm and don’t have any other source of income,” the Lao farmer, who is in his mid-twenties, said.
Khalom detailed how much money his family would have made in two years had the railway project not claimed his farm.
“[Our] farm usually produces about 2,000 pineapples a year, and [we can] sell each pineapple in the market for about a dollar. So that’s about $4,000 we would have made,” he said.
Khalom says he still remembers the day that Chinese workers showed up with bulldozers and cleared out his and other villagers’ land. He said he and other villagers protested.
“We haven’t gotten compensation yet! We need compensation first before you can destroy our farms,” he said.
“We used sticks and knives to chase away the Chinese [workers] but they explained to us that the project developers had already paid compensation to the [Lao] government,” Khalom said.
“It’s your government’s fault that you haven’t been compensated. Our companies have to finish this work now to ensure the project is completed on time,” Khalom quoted one of the workers as saying.
“It’s been over two years since that day. We waited and waited for our compensation to arrive, but we can’t wait any longer,” said Khalom, adding, “I have a sick mother, and three younger siblings at home.”
“I had no other choice but to leave the family. Here in Bangkok my wife and I are trying to save money. Hopefully we can send some to my mother soon,” Khalom said.
Rattanamany Khounnivong, vice minister at the Lao Ministry of Public Works and Transport, told RFA late last year that the government classified the affected families in several categories or priorities.
He said those who lost houses and did not have places to live would get paid first, while those who lost farmland might get paid later.
According to ABC Laos News’ Facebook page, Khounnivong said at a railway project committee meeting in November last year that of the $300 million that the government must pay out in compensation for losses related to the project, only $156 million has been paid. The government must therefore borrow money from China to pay the rest this year.
Khalom remains skeptical that the government will be able to pay him and other people from his village any time soon.
“We all signed some documents that said we would receive compensation in May last year. It’s no longer 2018 and we’re still waiting.”
Thousands of Lao families are being forced to relocate to make way for the U.S. $6 billion Lao-Chinese railway whose construction began in December 2016 as part of a longer rail project that will link China to mainland Southeast Asia.
Plans now call for work on the railway to end in 2021, with Chinese companies promising completion by that date despite the challenges of boring tunnels in mountainous areas of the country’s north.
Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by RFA’s Lao Service. Written in English by Eugene Whong.