Authorities in the Lao capital Vientiane have threatened to detain a group of villagers if they do not accept compensation to vacate their land, which the local government has granted as a concession to a development firm owned by the former mayor’s daughter and son-in-law.
According to a complaint letter recently submitted to the Lao National Assembly’s (parliament) petition unit, nearly all of more than 500 families in Vientiane’s Xiengda village were forced to accept compensation of five million kip (U.S. $615) per hectare (one-sixth of an acre) or “face imprisonment.”
Only seven families have refused the compensation, which they say is a mere 10 percent of the land’s market value, and told RFA’s Lao Service they have faced constant harassment from authorities to accept the offer.
“The officials always come with policemen and tell us that if we do not accept the compensation, they will arrest us,” a member of one of the holdout families told RFA, speaking on condition of anonymity.
A government committee of police officers, district authorities and officials from the Vientiane prosecutor’s office has been appointed to negotiate with the villagers about compensation for the land, where many have built their homes and lived for decades, despite lacking property titles.
RFA was unable to contact members of the committee for comment on the compensation scheme.
According to one villager, who also declined to provide his name, the Namatha Construction Company was granted the Xiengda concession “with the support of former Vientiane mayor Soukan Maharath … because the mayor’s daughter married the son of the company’s owner.”
The villager said that based on an April 2012 decree by then-mayor Soukan, the Joint Land Development Company was established to build on the concession, and his daughter and son-in-law have since taken control of the firm.
A local official told RFA that the concession covers a total area of 50 hectares (124 acres) in Xiengda village “which the company plans to develop and sell to whoever would like to manage the projects.”
Laotians are granted the right to occupy land through the state. Some of them can sell the right to use their land if their family has inhabited it for generations.
However, citizens cannot officially own property, and the government reserves the right to reclaim land when this is deemed to be in the public interest, such as for national development projects.
Villagers told RFA that harassment to accept the compensation package has increased since late last month, when residents confronted investors and officials who traveled to the area with bulldozers, and blocked them from clearing the land.
In a video of the May 27 standoff posted on Facebook, a female resident of Xiengda questions why the government had not issued permanent land titles to the villagers, who she says settled in the area and built their homes there in the 1950s, giving them de facto ownership of the site.
She says that despite the decades that villagers have occupied the land, the Vientiane Natural Resources and Environment Service—which is responsible for issuing property titles—suddenly announced in 2005 that the area had been earmarked for development.
“For whom is the law written?,” she asks in the video. “Can’t the people have rights to the land? Do only those with power have rights to use the land?”
A district official at the scene advises the villagers to speak with acting mayor of Vientiane Somvandy Nathavong, who was appointed to fill the vacancy left by the death of Soukanh in a 2014 plane crash, and the Natural Resources and Environment Service, “because all we can do as district officials is survey the land according to the guidelines of the mayor.”
However, another villager says they have been refused access to the mayor and that no officials from relevant government departments will hear their concerns.
After the video of the standoff was posted on Facebook, residents said negotiations between officials and the holdout families broke down and authorities began threatening villagers with detention if they do not take the compensation offer and vacate Xiengda.
The Xiengda village dispute is just the latest in a long list of land-related conflicts that have occurred in Laos since the government implemented a “Turn Land Into Capital” policy as part of the country’s land law in 2003.
Civil society organizations say the land disputes are largely a result of a failure by officials to carry out state policy at the local level—a problem which has come under debate at the Lao National Assembly.
In mid-2013, during a discussion on amending the national land policy at a session of the National Assembly, chairwoman of the Commission on Economy, Planning and Financing Souvanpheng Bouphanouvong noted that the law does not clearly define which level of government is responsible for local land management.
“It seems that village headmen are the state, district and provincial governors are the state, and ministry chiefs [ministers] are the state, and each have management powers like gods who bestow land-use rights to some people and seize them from others according to their whims,” she said at the time.
She called for a clearer policy which sets out at which level state agencies can or cannot issue land titles.
More than 2,600 land lease and concession agreements have been signed with investors covering 1.1 million hectares (2.7 million acres), or roughly five percent of Laos, according to a report published by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment in January 2013.
The report said that one out of five villages in Laos is affected by the investments, which exceed the area of the country used for wet rice production.
Most concessions in the country are granted for tree plantations and mining operations, and rights groups say the industries negatively impact local communities which rely on land, forests, and water for their livelihoods and food security. They also have led to forced evictions and compensation disputes.
Reported by Ounkeo Souksavanh for RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Ounkeo Souksavanh. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.