Author Archives: Mekong Commons

Silence of the Dammed

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In the ongoing controversy over the costs and benefits of hydropower in the Mekong River basin, there is much debate among governments, private business and civil society especially in Thailand and internationally. But one voice seems to be always silent in this debate: that of the local communities of Laos in whose country at least two mainstream Mekong dams are being built or planned and who will face the brunt of the projects’ impacts.

We never get to hear or see an informed opinion from local communities in Laos about the dams under planning and construction although many of these communities would face being displaced or resettled and lose their fisheries and other river-based livelihoods.

Laos is often perceived as a peaceful, Buddhist country with verdant mountains, rivers and a rural (and laid-back) way of life. While this may be true on the surface, it is a daily fact of life for Laotians that the ruling Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP) maintains control over the country’s press and civil society.

This also gives the impression that Laos has for the most part a passive citizenry that is least interested in politics. During three years of my field research in Laos, however, I found many Laotians I met always enjoyed talking about politics with me. They have access to Thailand’s radio and television channels, and understanding Thai language is not a problem. Its just that the politics that they could freely talk about was about Thailand not Laos.

It is not surprising then that the debate about hydropower in Laos is met with silence among Lao people, especially communities, and the people who do voice their opinions are usually those in government or the hydropower business.

Missing voices in Don Sahong

I interviewed people about 10 km from the site of the Don Sahong Hydropower Project (DSHP) located on the Mekong River’s mainstream in the Siphandone area of southern Laos, less than two kilometers upstream of the Laos-Cambodia border.1

The Don Sahong Dam threatens the rich subsistence and commercial fisheries in Laos and could pose impacts also in Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam. It also threatens the last remaining population of the Irrawaddy dolphins in Laos whose habitat is the Siphandone area. Moreover, the planned water diversion from the Khone Phapheng waterfalls could undermine the area’s tourism.

The dam builders and government officials have organized many public information activities about the dam and social or environmental assessment studies to evaluate the potential impacts of the DSHP.

I asked my interviewees – the local people in the area – whether they were involved in these studies. Most said they have never engaged in these studies, and did not know about the DSHP’s expected impacts.

“Laos has only one communist party”. Local people always repeat this sentence several times, before somebody clarifies watchfully: “Nobody is allowed to express their opinions against the party. Whether we like the Don Sahong dam or not, it will be constructed..

When I asked them if they know about the potential impacts of the dam, a fisher replied: “I cannot foresee what will happen if the Don Sahong dam is completed. The officials said nothing is going to harm our life. However, I am worried about the reduction in fishing.”

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Dam developers have announced no-fishing zones around the Don Sahong dam site although local fishers have used these areas for their livelihoods for more than a hundred years. (Photo by JeeRung.)

To my surprise, many did not even understand the concept of a dam. One sixty-five year old woman said: “I do not know what is a dam. Will a dam be built here? I asked my children to explain the meaning of a dam.” Another fisher asked: “What is the Don Sahong dam? I never heard any news if it will be located here?”

“Public information activities”

The public information activities being held by the DSHP developer are not like a “public hearing” process where citizens can freely debate the merits and demerits of the project, ask for information, provide alternatives, raise concerns, etc. In fact, the DSHP’s public activities does not include the free, prior and informed consent from potentially affected people before going ahead with the project. Moreover, the available documents such as EIA, mitigation and other plans are not made available in the local language.

I conducted in-depth interviews with local people who had an opportunity to participate in the DSHP’s public information activities. Most interviewees said the information they received were about the dam’s positive impacts provided by the dam developers, but there was no information about the negative impacts. The summary of these efforts at misinformation by the dam proponents are provided in the table below.

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Restrictions on media and other freedoms, weak civil society

There are few local civil society or nongovernmental organizations (CSOs/NGOs) dealing with issues of hydropower projects and monitoring them in Laos. Moreover, any emergent grassroots-level NGO working on public policy monitoring are viewed with government suspicion as politically subversive troublemakers. Although a few international CSOs especially based outside Laos have voiced critical views about the Mekong hydropower projects in Laos, their views are ignored by official state policy.

The citizenry of Laos (apart from state officials and some influential groups) has only minimal access to information about pending legislation, changes in regulations, or government policy. There are no established mechanisms for government consultation with civil society groups.

Lao people are also subject to severe restrictions on freedom of expression. The government controls all print and electronic media through the state news agency, Khaosan Pathet Lao. All media content is vetted by the Ministry of Information and Culture. A press law announced in 2001 that would allow limited private media ownership has not yet been adopted. If enacted, it would still impose strict controls, including the power to close publications deemed to be “anti-government”.

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Once Don Sahong is completed, the Don Sadam secondary school will be taken for the site of the hydropower transmission station. (Photo by JeeRung.)

Freedom of speech is restricted by provisions in the penal code that forbid “slandering the state, distorting party or state policies, inciting disorder, or propagating information or opinions that weaken the state.”

Article 59 of the penal code sets a prison sentence of 1 to 5 years for anti-government propaganda. Journalists who do not file “constructive reports” or who attempt to “obstruct” the work of the LPRP may be subject to jail terms of 5 to 15 years. Previous violators are believed to have incurred prison sentences of between 1 and 5 years2. The authorities usually harass the English-language press when it does not toe the official line.

The act of expressing views opposite to the official view of the state administration or public policies in public spaces is considered taboo. Lao authorities have consistently suppressed political antagonists, cracked down on those expressing critical opinions with arbitrary imprisonments and sometimes enforced disappearance3. The most high-profile case has been the “disappearance” of Magsaysay award winner Sombath Somphone. He was last seen in Vientiane in December 2012. Through these measures, Laotian authoritaries have instilled a fear among the populace of free expression of views.

Given this situation described above, it is not surprising that we do not hear about or see the genuine participation or expression of critical views by local communities in Laos regarding the Mekong hydropower projects.

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This article written by JeeRung was originally posted here on the Mekong Commons site.  It is reposted with permission of the author and Mekong Commons.

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Laos Vegas: Rolling the dice on rural development

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In Lao PDR, there are three large casinos presently in operation: the Savan Vegas Hotel and Casino, the Kings Roman Casino and the Dansavanh Nam Ngum Resort. They are facing controversies over forced evictions, dispossession of farmlands belonging to the local rural communities, and are ridden with mafia-style armed fights among rival casino and investor factions. In January 2005, China’s anti-gambling campaign forced many casinos and small gambling houses to move to countries on China’s southwestern border including Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam. Meanwhile, Lao officials and others, including middlemen and land developers, are reaping the cash benefits from this so-called rural development.

“The damned Chinese are taking over Laos,” the words spat out of a farmer whose nickname is Khoua living in the northern province of Luang Nam Tha. He was mouthing what most Lao people believe. Rural people dispossessed of land, urban dwellers witnessing the slow demise of their once elegant cities, all blame the mainland Chinese. Their presence is increasingly obvious, whether it be in the high speed motorcades blasting though Luang Prabang or in the proliferation of Chinese enterprises and their gargantuan construction projects, many of which lie echoingly empty and idle after completion. The influx of Chinese workers is affecting the local people’s chances of employment or skills training. But in the midst of frustration about the Chinese presence, what often goes unremarked or largely forgotten is that the Chinese are there as a direct result of the investment policies of the Government of Lao PDR, with many benefits from power to wealth being reaped by a long line of Lao officialdom.

When the author visited the area in November 2012, there were massive boards advertising the latest megaproject. Some provinces like Oudomxai north of the capital are more Chinese than Lao. That being said migrations and state borders have shape-shifted over the centuries blurring ethnicities and cultural loyalties. But what is obvious is the anger and resentment aimed at China while at the same time failing to recognise the agency and responsibility of the Lao government in ceding land and concessionary deals in return for investment and bribes.

This development complexity is best exemplified in the huge (and often bizarrely designed) casinos and gambling establishments that are expanding under the same perseverating rhetoric of development and poverty alleviation by which large dams and roads are being built. While these casinos have been written about in the mainstream media, very little analysis has been done about what they mean for rural people and their livelihoods.

Ferries bringing patrons across from Thailand and China for gambling (Photo by Melinda Boh.)

Ferries bringing patrons across from Thailand and China for gambling (Photo by Melinda Boh.)

From Chiang Saen in Thailand’s north, the white colonnaded building across the river, topped with a huge gilt crown is a bizarre sight. From Huay Xai in Laos, a potholed road through farmlands leads to the casino complex. The car suddenly jolt-lands on to thick cement, marking the casino’s boundary in Dork Ngoui Kham. Half an hour later we spot the golden cupola, its clock set on Beijing time, marking Bokeo Province’s Special Economic Zone (SEZ) office.

The nearby King Roman casino reveals plaster toga-clad statues alongside Chinese patriarchs and the symbols of the newest local religion: gambling. Parked nearby were two stretch limousines. Inside the building, men in suits gambled at the tables. “Kunming officials doing a site inspection,” was the official story from an attendant.

The only Lao person we saw was a farmer on a dust-covered motorbike with his equally dust-covered wife, narrowly avoiding being pushed into the Mekong River by the boat passengers.

The concession area includes archaeological treasures, importantly the ruins of a 16th century city reputedly built by King Setthatirat. Other remnants, possibly from the Mon empires of the first millennium CE, are considered to be of World Heritage value. Instead they may end up under the runway of an international airport planned to bring patrons in, but fiercely resisted by the local farmers. History will be replaced by what appears to be a gambling based narco-empire, where anything goes. For Laos, it means that some of the most fertile arable land and considerable archaeological treasures would soon be buried under asphalt to feed the gambling industry.

Stretch limousines pick up selected high rollers from the airport (Photo by Melinda Boh.)

Stretch limousines pick up selected high rollers from the airport (Photo by Melinda Boh.)

Civilising

Defending the casino and entertainment complex, a senior Chinese manager told researcher Pal Nyriri: “Before it was opium and drug businesses. There were no roads, no electricity … Laos is developing and it [the casino] is good for them.”

Zhang Wei, the casino’s principal developer, told Thai sociologist Pinkaew Laungaramsri of Chiang Mai University: “The biggest obstacle is that villagers … do not understand us. We have rented all the land and forest … but they … cut … or burn them. We can’t go around, arresting or beat up (sic) and fine the villagers who burn our gardens … it will cause ethnic issues.”

A local NGO worker, requesting anonymity, recalled taking a Chinese delegation to the site in 2009. “The three Government officials, a journalist, an environmentalist and a few academics were shocked at what they saw. ‘This gives China a bad image,’ they said. When we stopped; a crowd of up to 70 to 100 village people assembled shouting that they would not give up their land. The area is one of the most fertile and productive in Laos.”

They pointed to a white Humvee. “That’s the local official. Zhang gave him and the (Lao) police the same cars.”

China may see itself as a civilising influence, drawing on its long and remarkable history, using its wealth and dynamism to bring rapid economic growth. But with its entrepreneurs building casinos like those at the Lao border, China risks reinforcing its growing reputation for exploiting its neighbours.

Because although it’s the Lao government’s party apparatchiks and provincial officials whose signatures and rubber stamps bless these casino developments, it’s China that gets the bad press, a point clearly understood by the visiting Chinese delegation. The development of ‘legal/ illegal’ states through the formation of SEZ’s has enabled the Lao government to consolidate power, and amass wealth, patronage and control, while portraying itself as a helpless lackey of China.

Laos is fast gaining a reputation as a lawless state. It has shown unwillingness to arrestwildlife trafficker Vixay Keosavang while it faces continuing criticism for its intransigence in not being serious about investigating the high-profile disappearance of Magsaysay award winner Sombath Somphone. Moreover, Laos continues to face allegations of human rights violations, money laundering and profligate illegal logging that are causing both international concern to its many foreign donors and local frustration.

The so called “red carpet”, the road being paved pink for the patrons (Photo by Melinda Boh.)

The so called “red carpet”, the road being paved pink for the patrons (Photo by Melinda Boh.)

SEZs and other confusions

The casinos in the SEZ epitomise the complexity of the modernist zeal with which the Government of Lao and China pursue investment. Observers like Danielle Tan have noted the SEZs bring a post-socialist neo-liberal model to the Lao-China border zones. For nations that expound socialism and wisdom of central control, this is a strange choice. Neo-liberalism increases state income through taxes, exploits labour and expropriates land from traditional owners and farmers. The renowned sociologist Pierre Bourdieu considers neoliberalism “a program for destroying collective structures”, and even nations themselves.

With their confused legal frameworks and ambiguous status, SEZs invites all sorts of temptations. The implicit freedom tempts the seamier side of legitimate trade and investment particularly in the fabled Golden Triangle. Added to this mix, the Chinese fascination with gambling and luck makes Bokeo’s proximity all too tempting.

Along with disappointed losers, Tan found evidence of drug sales and money laundering, while Li Quan a London based tiger conservationist, told the Global Times that Lao casinos were trading posts for endangered species. Others are worried about child trafficking, rape and tax farming 1.

Tan alleges that the former military junta and drug lord Lin Mingxian is a major investor in the King Roman Casino, a charge denied by Zhang Wei. Ying and Zhang, of China’s Institute of Contemporary International Relations (CIR) and part of the 2009 delegation, agreed, writing, “While the nominal boss of the Casino in Bokeo is a Fujian native with a Hong Kong passport, it is … likely… the real investor is a drug cartel from Myanmar.”

The other side of China’s double jeopardy is legitimacy. The Bokeo casino is a photocopy of those in Mong La (Myanmar) and Boten (Laos) both managed by Zhang Wei, and both closed by China after evidence of mafia-style gunfights and crimes. However the King Roman is within Lao sovereign territory, while the others were on international no man’s land.

The Vice Prime Minister of the Government of Lao PDR, Somsavat Lengsavad, reacted to China’s concern about ongoing casino development with assurances that no further concessions would be granted as “casinos were a bad model for Laos.” But barely six months later in March 2014, the Vientiane Times announced plans for another casino in the South.

In total forty-nine SEZs are planned. How many will have casinos is anyone’s guess, and pose a serious concern to China.

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Size matters

The CIR’s critical appraisal of Laos’ transparency backs Nyiri’s research revealing that the Government of Lao granted the Hong Kong registered King Roman group a concession for the Bokeo land in 2007, after a down payment of US$850,000.

Lao government media KPL reported 827 hectares were ceded for 40 years; the maximum allowed under Lao law, but at variance to the company’s own estimation of 10,300 hectares for 99 years. In 2010, Zhao reported the new casinos would be bigger in scale than those in Boten, bragging that US$500 million would be spent developing the site, more than ten times the Laos national health budget.

A resident of Huay Xai who declined to be identified, admitted the casino is run down: “The paint’s peeling and shops boarded up. Less people visit now. One rich guy hired some [Lao] cops to protect him, but they shot him and took his money. Despite joint patrols, we still have shootings, as the Chinese mafia are using the place as a staging post. Gamblers are afraid. As for the organic farms and markets they promised, well who would buy the stuff? The farmers who lost their land are now broke and they used to produce what the casino promised but never delivered.”

“The casino’s still trying for the airport, but there is well-organised resistance. The locals called in Thai TV. The Lao police arrested two cameramen and held them for two weeks. The Thai government responded by closing the border until they were released. Now it’s a stand-off. The PR risk is too high.”

China has its own problems with crime. What it does to curb the influence of its neighbour will be interesting to see.

Post script: In late 2013, the Lao media announced that the farmers had been given their promised settlement. The casino had agreed to pay a compensation amount that was found satisfactory to the government. Many on the Lao agribusiness list-serv cheered.

Following up on this story, I was told by the above long term resident of the area (new laws in Laos restricting critical media make me reluctant to name anyone for fear of recrimination) that the company had in fact offered compensation way over the odds as the farmers had been both successful in gaining publicity and in holding out, fearing the same poverty that had mired their neighbours.

But the informant said the Lao government refused to give their imprimateur to the negotiated rate fearing that the amount offered would set an unhealthy precedent for other areas of Laos, so the farmers were given a significantly reduced amount. Hence the term “found satisfactory to the government” does not mean what one might have assumed.

This article was written by Melinda Boh for the Mekong Commons website and published here on 1/31/15.  It is reposted in its entirety with permission from Mekong Commons and the author.  ExSE is excited to begin a new cooperative partnership with the Mekong Commons team in sharing analysis and reporting.

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