By Beaumont Smith
VIENTIANE – It is easy to be seduced by the peaceful rural scenes, punctuated by rice fields, vegetable patches and reed-filled wetlands. But behind the natural tapestry, tension and anger are brimming over in the local communities near the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge outside of the Lao capital.
The communal complaint: their long self-sustaining community will on government orders soon be converted into an 18-hole golf course, luxury hotel and top-end residential developments, and the compensation on offer to relocate is well below going market land prices.
The Vietnam-owned Long Thanh Golf Trading and Investment Joint Stock Company, the developer behind the US$1 billion project, has already placed survey stakes and bulldozed certain areas in the 557 hectare plot. To make way for the construction, which is scheduled for completion in 12 years, over 250 mostly poor families will be forced to abandon their communities and small farms.
Some, however, have bravely braced for a fight. “If I had a gun I would kill them. I do not know what to do,” said Khampheng, a teary-eyed community member. “I fought for this country, I fought for my land. I watched my friends die to defend Laos. Now the government is forcing us off. What did I fight for? I am losing the land I have lived on since the war. I am too old to start again.”
His are bold words in authoritarian-run Laos, where the regime brooks no dissent or media criticism. As the economy transitions towards more market driven economics, the landlocked country has undergone a quiet economic boom in recent years, with average gross domestic product growth averaging around 6%.
At the same time the country’s Gini coefficient, a measure of inequality, has steadily increased, indicating a widening gap between rich and poor amid rising economic growth. Recent widespread and broad scale land grabs have become part and parcel of the government’s new market-led development model, as witnessed in recent years in neighboring Cambodia and Thailand.
As in many traditional societies, land in Laos is often held by tacit agreement rather than legal deeds. In some cases land was given by the state to those deemed worthy, like soldiers. Now that land is becoming a highly prized commodity, traditional land rights are being overturned by state power.
The people living on the 557 hectare proposed site are poor and live off the land. Some are retired soldiers, who like Khampheng have lived here since hostilities ended in the 1970s. A few are civil servants. “I can’t live on my government salary,” one said in passable English. “I have to grow food; my wife sells any surplus. The money they’re offering is not enough to buy land like this and there is none nearby that we can afford.”
A man in Nahai village told this correspondent that he did not wish to give up his land but had been told by the village chief that if he did not accept the government’s compensation offer, the land would be sequestered anyway and he would receive nothing. “One day when I die I would like to give this land to my children, but now what do I have? They told me I can work on the golf course, but I am too old, and what would I eat – grass?”
The state-backed Long Tranh project, according to some expatriate consultants monitoring the situation, is typical of the rampant land grabbing now underway across this impoverished country. Like many controversial developments here, it appears to have the imprimatur of Deputy Prime Minister Somsavat Lengsavad, who some onlookers believe will one day make a run for the presidency.
At a January 4 groundbreaking ceremony, Somsavat insisted that the government would create “favorable conditions” for the Long Tranh project. That was read by some as a tacit threat to those who have voiced opposition to the development. Villagers have reported a heavy police presence as well as Vietnamese security guards positioned around the now cordoned off site.
Beyond Somsavat’s public appearance, it’s unclear which level of government is driving the contested project. The $1 billion price tag is indicative of central government involvement. Negotiations and attempts to mollify angry villagers, however, have so far been handled mostly by district and local level authorities.
Long Thanh is known to be partially owned by a group of retired Vietnamese army officials who fought in Laos during the revolutionary conflicts, according to soldiers on the construction site and releases from the Lao government mouthpiece media. The company’s principal, Le Van Kiem, a Vietnamese Communist Party member and ardent golf fan, has expressed his aim to establish the most beautiful golf courses in Asia, according to the Hanoi Golf Club’s website.
Prior to the project’s launch, the Vietnamese army gave their Lao counterparts a gift of armaments, according to a Lao army official who spoke with this correspondent. It’s unclear if the gift in any way paved the way for the project’s concession, but as people living in the project’s target area expressed dissent to the development, the Ministry of Defense sent officials to investigate.
They told Khampheng – a retired soldier viewed by many here as a community leader – that he should be among the first to demolish his fence and make way for the development to set an example for other community members to follow. Many villagers have already acquiesced to incessant pressure from the authorities and threats of jail time if they did not move to an already crowded relocation site adjacent to the project.
According to several villagers, many were told by authorities that they could be charged with treason if they refused to leave the land. Opposition to government policy and state-led development plans carries the threat of long jail sentences in Laos.
Those living in the area’s Nong Hew and Xiengda villages have agreed to give up their land, which has caused rifts with the villagers in nearby Nahai and Dongkhamsang who are still holding out. “They didn’t know their rights and so they gave up easily. I pay land tax and I am being told I do not have a title, so I will not get any money. Who are they talking to? I will fight this, even if I die,” said an elderly lady from one of the opposed villages.
“Even though I have not signed over my land, I am afraid that their tractors will uproot my garden,” said another villager, requesting anonymity. “I know I have a right to plant as the land is still mine, but other people who like me have not signed have had their trees and gardens destroyed. I decided not to plant beans and cucumbers. What is the use if they come and bulldoze my crops? But now I have no income.”
Others have complained that they have been barred by Vietnamese soldiers from gathering mushrooms in a nearby copse that until now had been a mutually accepted commons. One woman reported that when she had taken her two cows to graze in a nearby marsh, she was turned away by an armed soldier.
“Why are Vietnamese soldiers in Laos? This is our country, what gives them the right to not let us use land we have always used?” she asked. “I can tell you about the soldiers, but if I complain to the authorities they tell me that I will be arrested.”
The presence of Vietnamese soldiers around the project raises touchy issues of sovereignty between the two neighboring, nominally communist allies.
On January 9, the situation on the project’s site escalated with the unauthorized bulldozing of one woman’s land. The community believed she was targeted for reprisal because she refused five days earlier to host a ground breaking ceremony on her plot.
“They are staging war,” she said. “It’s not the war of old times in the forest, but a war in the city against their own people.”
At one point during the confrontation, local men grabbed her toppled fence palings and advanced on the bulldozers, but they retreated after guards cocked their guns, according to one eyewitness. District head Khamla Chandala arrived on the scene later that afternoon to speak with the aggrieved villagers, many of whom openly challenged his authority. He ordered those who photographed soldiers and taped his presentations to stop recording the heated event.
Bureaucratic layer cake
These events are typical of the Lao government’s lack of transparency; its bureaucracy is notoriously convoluted and unaccountable to the public. In this particular case, none of the threatened villagers can pinpoint which branch of government is directly responsible for the project’s administration.
Many first read about the $1 billion project in the Vientiane Mai, a Lao language-newspaper, while others only learned about it when they saw unidentified men planting survey pegs outside their houses and rice fields, or when the same individuals demolished their fences and orchards to make way for construction equipment.
Villagers have sent protest letters to the various bureaus of the Land Management Department, the National Assembly and even the Prime Minister’s Office. So far they have been met with government delegations that showed no willingness to compromise. Meanwhile government appointed village heads have threatened villagers who refused to move.
Nearly all here agree that the compensation on offer isn’t sufficient to buy suitable replacement lands and most have no idea where they could viably resettle. Land prices around Vientiane have steadily increased in recent years. One woman was offered 40 million kip (around US$4,700) by mediating officials for her 3 hectares of paddy, garden plots and house at the center of the project’s site.
“It’s not enough,” she said. “Besides I have to pay the village headman to get my compensation. If I don’t pay him, he will not put his signature on the documents.” She notes that one hectare of land in the same vicinity on the outskirts of Vientiane was recently advertised on a real estate site for $50,000.
Some believe that funds allocated to the Lao government by Long Thanh to purchase the contested land have been siphoned off by unscrupulous officials. “One of the Vietnamese said the company had given 12 billion kip to the government to pay us for the land,” said one old man at the project’s site. “Where is it?”
Outsiders have questioned the underlying economics of the project. “There will soon be more golf courses than people playing golf,” claimed Robert Howard, a resident of Udon Thani, Thailand and frequent visitor to Laos. “When I play [golf in Laos], there are usually never more than another three guys playing, so I wonder how can they justify more courses.”
Ironically, the Long Than project is sited right next to another golf course, which is usually empty. But that’s not what concerns soon-to-be-displaced villagers. After one woman villager threatened Vietnamese workers who demolished her fence, a delegation of Lao officials was sent to investigate.
On their arrival, she accused them of allowing the destruction of her trees and fences by foreigners and once again refused to sign over her land. When fellow villagers chimed in with their complaints and grievances, the officials beat a nervous retreat, according to one eyewitness to the incident.
The woman who started the impromptu protest has since been warned by government insiders that she could be framed for a minor offence and jailed to send a signal to others still resisting the project – as well as exact revenge for the officials who publicly lost face. She has since left her home over fears for her personal security.
Some wonder whether the mounting anger and resentment could energize a larger grassroots movement against government-backed land grabbing across the country. “It’s interesting that Laos is surrounded by ferociously nationalistic countries,” said a foreign agriculture consultant, who requested anonymity.
“Look at China and Vietnam, who have not yielded one centimeter of territory, and Thailand and Cambodia arguing about a temple. But Laos is giving the nation away for peanuts,” he added. “The Vietnamese, Koreans and the Chinese must be laughing at how easy it is to buy land … What is going to be left for the Laos? If they try to fight for their land, they get kicked in the face.”
Others have noted similar grassroots protests in the old royal capital of Luang Prabang, where prime rice fields have also been set aside by the government for a vast golf course complex. A British man living in the area said that there had already been noisy local protests over the project.
“The people couldn’t buy a dog kennel with what they were being offered [in government compensation],” he said. “It’s a prime rice-growing area, that’s why people are living there. Why would you give land like that away so that a few Charlies can play golf?”
Beaumont Smith is a Vientiane-based correspondent.
(Copyright 2010 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved)