The government of Laos has ordered the governor of Luang Prabang province to helm a central ministry as part of a reshuffle sources say is meant to shield him from criticism over a controversial land concession he recently granted to Chinese investors.
Khampheng Saysompheng has been tasked with leading the country’s Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare, replacing Onechanh Thammavong, who will retire, the official Vientiane Times announced last week.
The move was among several other high-level changes approved by the National Assembly—the rubber stamp parliament of Laos—“aimed at responding to political needs and national development requirements,” the report said.
But a provincial official told RFA’s Lao Service 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.
“The [former] governor [Khampheng] was appointed minister not for reasons of administrative development and reform, but to avoid the corruption scandals he created,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“If ordinary officials or other governors acted as Khampheng had, they would have been demoted or laid off. But Khampheng was neither sued nor punished because he is the son-in-law of the former president.”
Khampheng was recently made the target of public criticism after reports surfaced on social media that the former governor had approved China’s A-Cho Group Company for a land concession to develop the area surrounding the Khouangxi waterfalls in Luang Prabang, one of Laos’ most famous natural landmarks.
The former governor issued the decision in April, although it was not made public at the time. The deal came to light, however, when a provincial Natural Resources and Environment Department staffer published a copy of a document related to Khampheng’s decision on her Facebook account.
The mid-June posting sparked widespread public condemnation 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.
Chanthaphone, the Natural Resources and Environment Department staffer, was detained by authorities on June 25 for posting a “confidential document” online about the deal to develop the area, according to a local source, though she has yet to be charged with a crime.
Public land turnover
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.
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 last month that the 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.
A source with knowledge of the situation called Khampheng’s actions as governor of Luang Prabang “unacceptable,” and questioned whether he would change his ways as Minister of Labor and Social Welfare.
“It is unacceptable that the governor has created so many problems which need to be resolved,” said the source, who also declined to be named.
“He used to be involved in corruption here [in Luang Prabang province], and after he is reshuffled to the new position he will corrupt things there [at the ministry] as well.”
Khampeng’s reassignment also comes amid concerns raised by Xiengkhouang province representative Bounpheng Mounphoxay last week at the Lao National Assembly over the loss of state-owned property and land to private entities.
According to Bounpheng, the problem stems from central and local officials using buildings and land historically designated for the government and the public to pay private firms constructing urban infrastructure projects.
“We need to keep a close watch on several properties owned by the state, as buildings in urban areas are increasingly unavailable [for public or government use] because they have been repurposed,” she said last week at the Assembly.
“State property is shrinking due to poor management or having been used to pay off debt, and is unreasonably becoming private property.”
A number of formerly state-owned buildings have recently been privatized in the capital Vientiane, including one housing the National Museum—which was given to Laos’ Khaphaysana Construction Company—and several in the Ministry of Public Security’s telecommunications campus in Sikhottabong district—which were granted as part of a concession to a Vietnamese firm.
Similarly, the formerly public Fountain Circle in downtown Vientiane has been turned over to a group of local businessmen who intend to build a restaurant in the space, while the area surrounding the Rasavong Hotel in the capital’s Xaysetha district, which was previously under the control of the National Defence Ministry, was handed to a Chinese investor, according to a source in the military.
The parcels were doled out by former mayor of Vientiane Soukan Maharath and Lieutenant General Douangchai Phichith, respectively—both of whom perished in a May 2014 plane crash.
Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Ounkeo Souksavanh. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.