Hundreds of store owners in the oldest section of the Talat Sao mall in Vientiane protested Friday against government plans to demolish their premises and relocate them, in a rare mass demonstration in the one-party, communist state.
The government wants to demolish the U-shaped block of Talat Sao, known as the morning market, in the heart of the Laotian capital and relocate more than 400 stall owners to what are known as the new Talat Sao Mall 1 and 2, the ASEAN Mall and other areas, reports have said.
The protesters dispersed after Vientiane's deputy mayor negotiated with them for almost an hour, appealing to them to end the demonstrations for the "sake of security" ahead of an Asia-Europe Summit to be held in the capital in November.
The store owners said they resorted to holding the protests after local authorities threatened to cut off water and power supply to their stalls, which have been selling industrial products, handicrafts, fruits, vegetables, meat, and fish as well as various other goods.
They said they do not want to move to the new building because the rents are too high, twice as much as current rates.
Some of them took turns to stay up overnight to prevent the authorities from severing electricity and water supply to the old building.
“The building that the authorities want to demolish is not old; it was built not many years ago. It's still new, it shouldn’t be destroyed unnecessarily,” one of the store owners said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The store owners said they had appealed to the Lao parliament to help resolve the dispute but there was no response.
The government gave a Singaporean investor approval to redevelop Talat Sao into a modern shopping center in 2003-2004, local newspaper reports said.
At first, the stall owners refused to back down to calls by the Vientiane vice mayor Anouphap Tounalom to end the protests.
They relented after the authorities proposed holding negotiations at the nearby Lao Front for National Construction, according to some of the shop owners.
Tounalom announced the closure of the oldest section of Talat Sao last month, saying it had to be rebuilt after nearly 60 years and emphasizing the need to modernize Laotian infrastructure.
In 1989, merchants raised funds to repair and build the market into a U-shaped block which was completed in 1991, Anouphap said, according to a Vientiane Times report.
He said the project to set up a new building replacing the oldest section of Talat Sao was the third and final phase of the redevelopment of Talat Sao and would be linked to structures put up under the previous phases.
Under the first phase, a five-storey building with 200 rooms covering 23,000 square meters ( 250,000 square feet) was built while the second phase consisted of an eight-storey building containing 1,200 rooms with a floor space of 65,000 square meters (700,000 square feet).
Reported by RFA's Lao service. Translated by Max Avary. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.