“Welcome to Sayabouly – Land of Elephants & Dams”

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A propaganda poster in the center of Sayabouli township shows founding leader of the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party and former Prime Minister Kaysone Phomvihane

Sayabouly[1] province, situated in Laos’ northwest, has long been considered something of a historical and geographical anomaly. For a start, it is the only Lao province that lies entirely on the western bank of the Mekong river with only a forested mountain range separating it from Thailand, and secondly, as a once remote borderland, it has at various times been the subject of territorial disputes that occasionally have proved quite bitter.

Once part of the Lan Xang kingdom and used as a conduit for warring Siamese and Lao armies, by the late nineteenth century Sayabouly became a slice of desirable real estate for expansionist Siamese and French colonial governments, both of whom claimed dominion over its territory and rich forest resources. The Siamese were forced to cede it to France in 1904 by treaty, no doubt recognising its strategic importance for buffering the important city of Luang Prabang. During the Second World War in 1940, Thailand annexed it with the help of the Japanese army and renamed it Lan Chang, but the province returned to French control six years later with the restoration of French Indochina and Thailand was obliged to drop its claims as part of the conditions for its entry into the United Nations.

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Location of Sayabouli province in Lao PDR. Photo: Wikipedia

Since the fall of French Indochina and its inclusion in a new Lao nation, Sayabouly has been subject to periodic Thai irredentist claims for lost lands of a greater Thai empire and saw active insurgency by Thai-funded fighters during the twenty year civil war, although it largely escaped the US aerial bombing campaign that devastated so much of the rest of the country. More recently, the southern end of Sayabouly in Botene district experienced a short border war between the Thai and Lao military from December 1987 to February 1988, supposedly over disputed logging claims and the legacy of unclear French border demarcation. This rather bloody spat reportedly led to the deaths of around a thousand soldiers (primarily on the Thai side), but was deftly hushed up by the authorities on both sides, with the Thai government blocking reporters from accessing the battlefield area. I have heard credible reports from Lao soldiers present that Thailand employed chemical weapons against the Lao

Sayabouly also offered an important sanctuary for Communist Party of Thailand (CPT) fighters during the 1970s and 80s, a leading member of which used to be a neighbour when I lived in remote Phiang District for two years in the late 1990s. I was a field-based advisor with a UNDP-funded aquaculture extension project working with the provincial livestock and fisheries department in a role that gave me a unique opportunity to travel extensively throughout the province, at a time when road communications were still problematic and slow, while telecommunications facilities did not extend much further than the provincial capital.

The kindly old Thai CPT comrade I knew had trained in China and fought in the jungles throughout Northern Thailand, eventually retreating to communist Laos following a government amnesty for CPT members being declared in 1982. After laying down his weapons, he lived out his twilight years in Muang Phiang in conditions of relative poverty living the life of a smallholder farmer, steadfastly refusing to return to his birth place in Sisaket Province, Northeast Thailand. He used to tell me about the dense forests the CPT set up small camps in to conduct raids into Thailand, which one could trek through for days without encountering a road or human habitation, living largely off hunted game and forest produce. The Lao authorities permitted a small group of Thai CPT dissidents to seek refuge in Sayabouly for years after hostilities officially ceased, including the noted writer, Assanee Polajan.

Retooling Sayabouly

Despite recent government efforts to put the province on the map through tourist promotion, attempting to take advantage of its position as both a gateway to Luang Prabang and a province with a rich potential for eco-tourism in its own right, reflected in the organisation of an annual Elephant Festival in Sayabouly provincial capital (held on 19-21 February this year), originally conceived by ElefantAsia to ensure pachyderm protection, with the elephants acting as an iconic symbol of wider Lao cultural and environmental conservation concerns.

Having evolved since its first iteration in Hongsa district in 2006, tourists nowadays would see dozens of elephants led in to the township to play football, drag demonstration logs, parade in costume, take a bath in the Nam Houng river, give rides and generally entertain locals and foreigners alike. Since its inception, the conservation message has been gradually replaced by spectacle and commercialism, with ElefantAsia nudged out of the scene by competitors with far deeper pockets and greater influence in high places, with the two most prominent names by far being “Hongsa Power Company” and “Xayaburi Power Company”. Both maintain a healthy fleet of branded four wheel drive vehicles and display prominent roadside posters around town that compete with Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP) hammer and sickle adorned banners, from which smiling demagogues beam down on passers-by above ubiquitous state propaganda messages. Ironically perhaps, given the province’s history, both of these companies are Thai-owned. Amidst this strange mix of modern corporate advertising and North Korean style political propaganda, it is unlikely a visitor would learn much about the province’s rich historical past at the Festival, much less its environmentally controversial present.

Not disconnected from the deft switch to Thai corporate sponsorship of the Elephant Festival, Sayabouly province hosts two of the largest energy production projects in Southeast Asia. These have contributed to a fundamental alteration in its ecological character in a matter of a few years, perhaps more than any other province in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, as it is officially known. What were remarkably healthy and biodiverse forests and river systems at the turn of the millennium, have rapidly degraded to become rather lacklustre shadows of their former state, diminishing their value and utility to the majority of the scattered rural population that heavily depended upon the services they provided. Furthermore, rare and endangered wildlife species have all but disappeared, falling victim to habitat loss, hunting and a scarcely restrained trade in bush meat.

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Group of youth work as a team with nets to catch small fish in the Nam Huong river near Sayabouli township.

For many households, agriculture was a secondary occupation to the foraging and harvesting of non-timber forest products and a wide variety of aquatic organisms that formed the basis of livelihoods up to around the millennium. While this livelihood switch may be considered the inevitable cost of “development” and “progress” wherever one cares to look in the “developing” nations of the world, the social and environmental changes I found in Sayabouly during a recent visit were nevertheless rather stark and speak to wider political and structural issues emerging in this autocratic state, sandwiched between three voracious regional powers.

Harnessing Sayabouly

My first return visit to Sayabouly in over a decade began in the northern district town of Hongsa, travelling there by slow boat down the Mekong River to the minor landing at Tha Suang, an hour’s journey downstream from the popular backpacker overnight stopping off village of Pak Beng, located roughly midway between Huay Xai and Luang Prabang. Pak Beng is on the cusp of being transformed by a near-completed bridge over the Mekong that will link Thailand and China, and just above the bridge, a 912 MW hydropower dam, with the site currently being prepared by Datang, a Chinese corporation. From Tha Suang, Hongsa is reached along a narrow, twisting dirt road, which snakes up through some of the last remnants of a once immense jungle. One emerges from that forest high above Hongsa to be greeted by the sight of an immense smoking industrial complex, dominated by a massive chimney and three cooling towers. On the day of my visit the tops of the chimney and towers were lost in the cloud, giving the view something of a surreal quality, juxtaposed as it is next to paddy fields and traditional villages.

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Hongsa lignite power station. Local air and water quality has deteriorated around the site since operations began in 2015.

Hongsa has become the site of a giant opencast lignite mine and associated thermal power station which is designed to produce when fully operational an electricity output of 1,653 MW, of which all but 100 MW will be exported to Thailand. It is described by the Lao government as a “model project” that is “truly environmentally friendly and conducive to sustainable social development”[2]. The main investors in Hongsa Power Company (HPC) are Thai companies Banpu Power and Ratchaburi Electricity Generating Holding, each of which hold a 40 % stake, while the remaining 20 % is retained by the Lao government’s Lao Holding State Enterprise (LHSE). The consortium has been granted a 25 year concession to operate the mine and power station, which employs some 700 staff, of which about 400 are Lao nationals. The concession area covers about 60 km2 and required the forced resettlement of over 2,000 people to a once-forested 1,200 hectare site located some 18 kilometres to the east of Hongsa town. Oustees are trained to adopt new and alternative livelihoods involving both agricultural and non-farm activities by staff from HPC and state officials, but inevitably within a far more challenging and biologically impoverished landscape than their more productive homelands.

The local driver who took me to Hongsa told me that since the mine and power station were built, the local river (Nam Kene) had become seriously polluted affecting the water source for several villages and killing fish all the way down to its confluence with the Mekong over 30 kilometres away. He told me, “since the power station opened last year, people in Hongsa and Muang Ngeun have been complaining about chest complaints and other health issues, brought about by the dirty air from those chimneys.” He explained that a vast area of agricultural land, mostly rice paddies, and natural forest had been confiscated over the last few years, to make way for both the mine and power station, but also the resettlement site, leading to a rapid loss of previously prolific non-timber forest products and wildlife available locally.

The same informant also told me that villagers living along the Mekong’s banks in Hongsa district were aware of and concerned about the future impacts of the Xayaburi hydropower project on their fisheries and natural resources-based livelihoods. This was the other Thai-owned mega-project looming large over the province’s future. They had already experienced a precipitous decline in fish catches in recent years, but were not sure if this was mostly related to dams upstream in China that have already greatly altered flow regime of the river, or the ongoing construction of Xayaburi dam located 90 kilometres downstream of Luang Prabang city. The Xayaburi dam project officially began construction in 2012, although site preparations had been going on for a year or two previously, creating a noted logical disconnect between Lao state-controlled media announcements and reported observations of actual on the ground activities.

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The Xayaburi dam under construction in December 2014. Photo: Courtney Weatherby

The 1,285 MW project, estimated to cost $ 3.5 billion, is owned by “Xayaburi Power Company”, which is a 50% owned subsidiary of the Thai construction corporation giant CH. Karnchang PLC, a major listed company on the Thai stock exchange. Funds to build the dam project have been loaned by a group of six Thai financial institutions, including the state-run Export-Import Bank of Thailand. Its implementation has been described as a “game changer” in terms of paving the way for future hydropower development along the lower Mekong mainstream. Indeed, since it was approved by the Lao and Thai governments, Xayaburi has sparked off a rush of new hydro development domestically in Laos, including an equally controversial project in southern Laos at Don Sahong, situated on the most important river channel for upstream fish migration, just a few kilometres from the border with Cambodia. Similar to the Hongsa project, 95% of the power produced from Xayaburi is scheduled for export to Thailand, following planned completion in 2017, underlining a wider gradual incorporation of neighbouring state’s natural resources into the Thai market. This is not to underestimate similar designs and processes underway by both China and Vietnam who are in fierce competition with Thailand for the rights and means to extract them.

Sayabouly at risk

In terms of the environmental and social impacts of the Xayaburi project, much has been written elsewhere about its destructive potential to decimate capture fisheries upstream and downstream, through blocking migration pathways and altering flow and sediment patterns across international boundaries, although the Lao government has treated its development in essence as a domestic affair, with any transboundary impacts considered minor and “incidental.” The government and developers have consistently rejected any need to accept responsibility in the event of a decline in fisheries linked to the dam, arguing that their technological mitigation methods in the form of an unproven fish lift and pass will be sufficient.

In any case, as the director-general of Laos’ Department of Energy Policy and Planning, Daovong Phonekeo maintained, following the decision to pursue construction of Don Sahong dam last year, “for the development of the Mekong River, we don’t need consensus.” Meanwhile, a challenge against the legality of Thailand’s Ministry of Energy and four other state agencies’ support for the Xayaburi dam project was brought to the Supreme Administrative Court by a coalition of villagers at risk of impact and civil society groups, but was thrown out late last year by judges on the grounds that the agencies involved had performed their legal duty correctly. An appeal against the verdict was filed by the plaintiffs on January 25 this year, but any decision will come too late to halt the dam’s completion. The often maligned and toothless Mekong River Commission has remained to all intents and purposes mute throughout this process, causing disillusioned donors to head for the door with future funding.

Although the Xayaburi dam has been roundly criticised for its destructive potential by a wide range of civil society and international state and non-state organisations and media, including repeated concerns voiced by the United States government and other Western nations, the Lao government and allied hydropower industry interests portray any opposition as being confined to a small group of foreign environmentalists that are ideologically opposed to any development activities. Thus, opposition to Xayaburi and other major Mekong dams is perceived within Laos as the preserve of a minority of Western “troublemakers” that through ignorance and arrogance, want to keep the nation perpetually poor and underdeveloped, by halting its rightful sovereign demands to fully develop its water resources for hydropower production and other purposes. Anyone who remotely sympathises in public with this unreasonable foreign position is likely to be harshly treated by the ubiquitous state machine, which falls under the direction of the Politburo of the LPRP.

As the respected historian and political observer of Laos, Martin Stuart-Fox has observed, “No criticism, or even political debate, is permitted outside the confines of the highly secretive party, which recruits its membership from the ambitious and educated. Without the support of the party, promotion in government and the bureaucracy or success in business is impossible.”[3] In short, Laos languishes near the bottom of almost any international league table of civil liberties, accountability, rule of law, and anticorruption and transparency measures, with virtually no civil society to speak of, in particular around hydraulic development issues. As a young villager watching a dam site being prepared on the Nam Kading river in central Laos once confided to me, “To speak against a dam here, is like speaking against the king over there”, pointing towards Thailand. In other words, it is just not done, if one wants to survive.

And not everyone does survive under the LPRP regime, which has ruled with an iron fist since “liberation” in 1975. Lao people who dare to speak out or protest may be incarcerated for years in grim prisons or fall victim to more brutal measures. Some have been known to simply disappear and are never heard of again, for conducting what would be considered quite innocuous activities in most other countries. Even though he was careful not to directly criticise the government’s policy on dam development and was a relatively high-profile NGO leader who had won the Magsaysay Award in 2005 and travelled extensively abroad, Sombath Somphone became a victim of suspected state enforced disappearance in December 2012. While his case has been extensively covered in the international media, and the Lao government has been criticised by Australian and European parliamentarians for not releasing more information about Somphone’s case, there has been little progress made over the last three years and the human rights situation domestically has continued to worsen, leading to a palpable sense of fear amongst ordinary citizens. According to a reliable source in Vientiane, since Somphone’s disappearance an estimated 200 Lao citizens have similarly disappeared, with a reasonable assumption that state forces are responsible.

While such figures are impossible to verify, in the absence of a free media and independent organisations to investigate such allegations, it is widely recognised by organisations such as Human Rights Watch that Laos has regressed in terms of basic freedoms over the last decade. I found Lao people I met during my visit far less likely to talk frankly about the internal situation than I ever recall was the case in the late 1990s and could only attribute this to a context of worsening state censorship of expression and draconian internal repression, even while superficially it may appear to be reaching out to processes of regionalisation and globalisation. Even foreigner friends who work in Laos were reluctant to talk about dam-related issues, perhaps frightened that their Lao visas or work permits may be cancelled by vindictive authorities. There is no contradiction in this position, nevertheless, if one appreciates how power and decision-making are centralised within the hands of a relatively small group of people at the top of a patronage-based hierarchical system.

Whither Sayabouly?

To better comprehend the political situation in Sayabouly and more broadly in Laos with regard to dam development, the visible environmental degradation and tangibly repressive atmosphere that surrounds such infrastructural development, it is helpful to recall the work of Karl Wittfogel and his “hydraulic society” hypothesis. Wittfogel, in describing the nature of state-society relations in certain ancient states in arid and semi-arid areas which exerted strong authoritarian control (often under a despotic, theocratic ruler), hypothesised that state formation and expansion was carried out to a large extent through the centralised control over water resources, in particular irrigation development and management, though included other productive and protective (i.e. flood control) functions too, as well as non-hydraulic infrastructural construction. He noted how, “the rulers of hydraulic society were great builders”, in their efforts to dominate and sustain their power base. In modern states too, one can discern how state-centric hydraulic development can permit the greater control over society, with increased bureaucratisation and centralisation of power to a small, ruling elite, paralleling the processes in ancient states, albeit within a narrower time frame nowadays due to technological advancements. Laos is becoming a classic nouveau hydraulic society as its handful of ruling families concentrate the wealth and power that results from the sole authority to dole out rights (at considerable cost, one might add) to public and private operators wishing to develop the hydraulic potential of the nation’s rivers.

This leads to some spectacularly big and bad projects being built throughout the country, exemplified by the Xayaburi hydropower project, but also a slew of smaller dam projects on tributaries, such as the one I witnessed getting under way to the east of Sayabouly town on the Nam Houng River. A contract signing and groundbreaking ceremony was held on 2 August last year attended by the recently deposed Lao foreign minister, Somsawat Lengsavad, and work is being undertaken by a Lao construction company linked to the central elite, Simouang Group and a Korean sub-contractor, Dowoo Engineering and Construction, both of which appear to have no prior experience of dam construction. Even though the electricity production capacity is relatively small at 15 MW, the project’s ecological footprint is high, that will lead to the destruction of an “ADB Sustainable Tourism Development Project” funded medicinal plant preserve and spa centre at Huay Namsai, originally aimed at boosting the province’s eco-tourism credentials, supporting ethnic minorities and boosting local livelihoods.

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Sign announcing directions to the Chinese built Nam Houng 1 hydropower plant.

When I visited in late January, the magnificent old growth forest around the centre had just been felled and the trunks were awaiting removal, while visitors to the centre were blocked from entry by dam company guards. A provincial official that had helped to establish the centre told me that he was thoroughly disillusioned, after he had learned the herbal plant centre was to be flooded by the dam and local Hmong people would lose land and livelihoods as a result. He confided that the LPRP leaders were considering changing the provincial motto from “Sayabouly, Land of the Elephants” to “Sayabouly, Battery of ASEAN”. I looked for a hint of irony in his face, but there was none.

Sayabouly province may not be territorially integrated into the borders of Greater Thailand and it is still very much a part of the PDR, but its natural resources are increasingly not being enjoyed locally by the majority of its inhabitants. Instead, they are flowing across the border to the nearest of an insatiable triumvirate of neighbours, captured by powerful foreign business interests in close collusion with the provincial and national level LPRP apparatchik. It is apparent that such processes of primitive accumulation will only grind to a halt when the store cupboard is well and truly bare, which may not be too long into the future. Tellingly, it is predicted that lignite reserves at Hongsa will be exhausted just one year after the power concession agreement expires, presumably leaving the nation with one humungous bill in clean up costs at the mega “mine-mouth power project”. Whether there will be any wild elephants left in the province’s forests by 2040, or indeed any Lao forests left intact at all, seems most unlikely under the present paradigm.

 

[1] NB: I have adopted the spelling convention most commonly used by provincial authorities, though there are several other variations commonly encountered, including that used for the eponymous hydropower dam, which I have retained when referring to the project in this article i.e. “Xayaburi”.

[2] This quote is taken from the Ministry of Energy and Mining, sponsored amongst others by Hongsa Power Company, that paints a wholly rosy picture of this and other power projects underway or already built in Laos. Available at: http://www.laoenergy.la/pageMenu.php?id_menu=47

[3] Quote taken from Stuart-Fox, M. (2008). Laos. In Sanha Kelly, Christopher Walker and Jake Dizard (Ed.), Countries at the Crossroads 2007: A Survey of Democratic Governance (pp. 369-392) Lanham, MD, United States: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers .

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