Authorities in Laos have released a government staffer one month after she was taken into custody for posting information on social media about a controversial land concession granted to Chinese investors by Luang Prabang province, according to official sources.
Chanthaphone, a provincial Natural Resources and Environment Department staffer, was freed from detention in the days leading up to an Aug. 4-6 provincial party congress “after being interrogated,” an official from Luang Prabang told RFA’s Lao Service, speaking on condition of anonymity.
She had been detained since June 25 for posting a “confidential document” on her Facebook account earlier that month about the deal to develop the area around the Khouangxi waterfalls, a popular tourist attraction. The post prompted a storm of criticism over the agreement from the country’s netizens.
The Luang Prabang official said Chanthaphone was released after a “misunderstanding” related to the deal had been cleared up.
“The problem has been solved, as it was simply a misunderstanding by certain people—the facts are different that what they thought,” he said.
“There is no problem now. It’s all related to a misunderstanding by others about the agreement.”
The official said Luang Prabang had never approved China’s A-Cho Group Company for a concession to develop the area surrounding the Khouangxi waterfalls—only allowed the firm to conduct a survey and feasibility study of the site, despite information posted by Chanthaphone which suggested otherwise.
Another official with the provincial cabinet, who also declined to provide his name, told RFA that Chanthaphone had been set free for two reasons.
“One reason is that Chanthaphone never intended to accuse or criticize the [ruling communist] party and government,” the official said.
“In addition, the provincial governor [didn’t] want her detention to be raised during talks at the party congress.”
While Chanthaphone was freed ahead of the congress, all officials in Luang Prabang province have been prohibited from discussing any details of her detention and release, sources said.
When RFA contacted Lieutenant Colonel Somsak of the Luang Prabang Police Headquarters for further information about Chanthaphone’s case, refused to provide any details, saying “I don’t know anything about this issue.”
A provincial Natural Resources and Environment official told RFA that Chanthaphone was no longer an employee at his department, but would not say whether she quit or had been fired.
The party congress ended Thursday with the appointment of Khamkhan Chanthavisouk, a native of Luang Prabang, as governor of the province, replacing Khampheng Saysompheng, who was ordered by the central government to oversee the country’s Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare in early July.
A provincial official told RFA’s Lao Service at the time that Khampheng—who is also the son-in-law of former President Khamtay Siphandone and husband of State Audit Organization president Viengthong Siphandone—had been reassigned to avoid public scorn over corruption and land mismanagement.
According to the document posted by Chanthaphone, the former governor granted the development concession to A-Cho Group in April, although it was not made public at the time.
The document showed that Khampheng assigned various provincial personnel to work with A-Cho Group to conduct a survey and environmental impact assessment of the planned investment and development of the area around the waterfalls—one of the country’s most famous natural landmarks.
In the meantime, it said, the provincial government was preparing a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to be signed with the Chinese company to approve each kind of investment for the concession.
Once the survey and assessment was completed, the results were to be submitted to Khampheng who would then grant the Chinese the concession, the document said.
The mid-June posting had sparked widespread public criticism among locals who say the provincial government routinely gives away public property to domestic and foreign investors in the form of concessions which bring the population little benefit.
According to the source, authorities identified Chanthaphone after determining that the document had originated from her office.
Luang Prabang, an ancient capital more than 1,000 years old, was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995 and is the most popular Lao city for both domestic and international tourists. Since then, foreign investors have pumped money into local real estate projects after getting land concessions from the government.
But locals who oppose public property being granted to foreign and domestic companies refuse to speak out publicly because they fear retribution in the form of threats.
Six years ago, three people who had their land taken away from them by the government to make way for a golf course project financed by South Korean investors were detained in prison for more than two years. One of those detained was an official from the Ministry of Justice.
Khampheng has previously granted land concessions for public property to companies. He gave the Lao firm Sisak Construction Company concessions to the provincial club building locally known as Hongsaek, Lane Xang public park at the edge of the Provincial Airport, and the Phamsay River, which is used for boat racing.
Sources told RFA in June that the former governor also gave the Lao firm Tieng Douangpaserth Construction Company a land concession for a restaurant in That Luang yard, a provincial venue used for traditional processions and key events.
Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Ounkeo Souksavanh. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.