Authorities in Laos have detained a woman who posted information on social media about a controversial land concession granted by the local government in Luang Prabang province to Chinese investors, prompting a storm of criticism over the agreement from the country’s netizens.
Chanthaphone, a provincial Natural Resources and Environment Department staffer, was detained June 25 for posting a “confidential document” on her Facebook account about the deal to develop the area around the Khouangxi waterfalls, a popular tourist attraction, a local source 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.
“After the information about the deal spread on social media, the governor organized an urgent meeting with the directors of all provincial government offices to inform them of what happened and investigate who posted it on social media,” the source told RFA’s Lao Service, speaking on condition of anonymity.
According to the source, authorities identified Chanthaphone after determining that the document had originated from her office.
“At this point, only government employees know what is happening with her and everything is confidential,” he said, adding that Chanthaphone’s parents work in the same office as her and are responsible for preventing staff members from posting comments or opinions on social media.
The source said that provincial officials have been warned by their superiors that anyone found to post comments on the Khouangxi waterfalls land concession or Chanthaphone’s detention will be subject to punishment.
“Many government employees are scared and have been trying to delete their comments and posts from their Facebook accounts and other social media sites,” he said.
A provincial official, who also declined to be named, confirmed Chanthaphone’s detention to RFA.
“Chanthaphone was detained as part of an investigation, but the investigation has yet to be concluded,” the official said, adding that he believed “she will not be found guilty and will be let off.”
Other officials from the provincial government’s Information and Culture and Tourism departments told RFA they were unaware of her case and had received no information about a document leak.
Khampheng Saysompheng, governor of Luang Prabang province, approved China’s A-Cho Group Company for a land concession to develop the area surrounding the Khouangxi waterfalls, one of the country’s most famous natural landmarks.
The governor, who is also the son-in-law of former President Khamtay Siphandone and husband of Viengthong Siphandone, president of the State Audit Organization, issued the decision in April, although it was not made public at the time.
The deal came to light, however, when Chanthaphone published a copy of a document related to Khampheng’s decision on Facebook, leading to a storm of public criticism over the deal.
According to the document, the governor has assigned personnel from Luang Prabang’s planning and investment, information culture and tourism, natural resources and environmental services along with district authorities and employees from other relevant sectors to work with A-Cho Group to conduct a survey and environmental impact assessment of the planned investment and development of the area.
In the meantime, the provincial government is 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 are completed, the results will be submitted to Khampheng who will then grant the Chinese the concession, the document said.
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 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.
Chanthaphone is the second person since May known to be detained by police in Laos on charges related to information they posted on Facebook.
Phout Mitane, a 26-year-old resident of Nabouam village in Xayaburi province’s Phieng district, was taken into custody without an arrest warrant by local police officers on May 21, a week after she posted photos on Facebook allegedly showing police officers extorting money from her brother over a traffic violation. Phout remains in detention.
Use of social media in Laos has surged in recent years, with an increasing number of people looking to the internet to find news and information they do not have access to in state-run media.
In September last year, Lao Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong signed Decree No. 327 into law, prohibiting online criticism of the government and the ruling communist party, and setting out stiff penalties for netizens and Internet service providers who violate controls.
Under the decree, which took effect on Oct. 1, netizens face criminal charges for publishing “untrue information” about policies of the ruling Lao People's Revolutionary Party or the Lao government for the purpose of “undermining … the country.”
Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Ounkeo Souksavanh. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.