Lao Villagers Reject Plans For China-Invested SEZ

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laos-canoe2-020419.jpg Tourists paddle down a river in Vang Vieng in Laos.

Lao villagers living in the scenic Vang Vieng region north of the capital Vientiane are blocking attempts to survey their land for foreign-invested development, fearing they will be displaced from their homes by a new Chinese tourism project, sources in the Southeast Asian country say.

The project, managed by the Chinese firm Lao-Vang Vieng New Area Development Company, will affect 22 villages lying to the west of the Xong river and has been given permission from the Lao government to proceed, sources said.

But attempts by company employees to survey the area were blocked at the end of December when villagers objected to the plans, the head of one village told RFA’s Lao Service this week.

“The company tried to survey the villagers’ homes and land, but the villagers objected, and there were verbal confrontations,” the village leader said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“The confrontation ended only when district authorities came by to calm things down,” he added.

“Most of the villagers here don’t want the Chinese company to survey their land, because they are afraid that their homes and property will be taken from them, and if this happens, where will they go to live?”

It is believed that the proposed special economic zone (SEZ) called the Sustainable Tourism Development Project will cover thousands of hectares of land in Vang Vieng, an area of natural beauty already popular with backpackers and river-goers, but officials have not yet published the exact number, the source said.

“They [the Chinese company] are basically exploring the possibilities now for what can be done,” a tourism official for Vang Vieng told RFA, also speaking on condition he not be named.

Signed by the Lao-Vang Vieng Company last year in a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Laos, the project will run in three phases over 15 years at a cost of U.S. $5.5 billion, and is expected to create 50,000 jobs, according to Lao media sources.

It is unclear how many of those jobs will go to Lao villagers now living in the area, however.

Meanwhile, Vientiane province has granted another Chinese company permission to survey the area of a former airport in Vang Vieng for construction of an entertainment complex, including a shopping mall, hotels, and other structures on 15 hectares of land at a cost of U.S. $200 million, sources say.

Target for foreign investment

As one of the least developed Southeast Asian nations, Laos has become a target for massive foreign investment, especially from companies from neighbors China, Thailand, and Vietnam, which receive attractive investment incentives from the Lao government.

Laos grants its citizens the right to occupy land, and some can sell the right to use their land if their family has inhabited it for generations.

But citizens cannot officially own property, and the government reserves the right to reclaim land when this is deemed to be in the public interest, such as for national development projects.

At least a dozen active special and specific economic zones have already been created throughout the country to attract foreign direct investment to boost development and job opportunities in rural areas since 2002 when the first SEZ was set up.

Under Lao Decree 84 issued in April 2016, Lao citizens who lose land to development projects must be compensated for lost income, property, crops, and plants.

Project owners must also guarantee that living conditions for those displaced will be as good as, or better than, they were before the project was launched.

However, compensation payments are often delayed, sometimes for long periods of time, or are paid out in amounts lower than those initially promised, with newly assigned land sometimes deemed unsuitable for farming, sources say.

Reported and translated by Ounkeo Souksavanh for RFA’s Lao Service. Written in English by Richard Finney.


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