A Lao official has decided to grant a land concession to a Chinese investor to develop the area around one of the country’s most famous natural landmarks, despite heavy criticism by locals who oppose such deals involving public property.
Khampheng Saysompheng, governor of Luang Prabang province in northern Laos, approved China’s A-Cho Group Company for a land concession to develop the area surrounding the Khouangxi waterfalls, a popular tourist attraction.
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 a copy of a document related to Khampheng’s decision was published on Facebook in mid-June, sparking widespread public criticism.
It indicates that 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.
Luang Prabang residents are critical of the deal because the provincial government has a history of giving public property to foreign and domestic investors in the form of land concessions for projects which locals say bring them little benefit.
“To tell you the truth, I do not agree that the Chinese investor should have the concession, because in the future they will bring Chinese workers instead of hiring local workers,” said a Luang Prabang resident, who declined to be named. “Local residents as well as tour guides might be unemployed because the Chinese investors will bring their own people to work here instead.”
He urged Khampheng to carefully reconsider his decision and not focus on individual interests because the Khouangxi waterfalls are public property.
He went on to say that the situation was similar to a land concession given to Korean investors to build a golf course in the province and a casino in the special economic zone in the Golden Triangle in Bokeo province.
“The Koreans did not create local employment because they brought foreign workers to replace Lao workers,” he said.
“Around two years ago, local businessmen who are close to the governor bought many hectares of land plots in the areas surrounding the Khouangxi waterfalls because they were rushing to develop the land that they planned to sell to Chinese investors,” said another source in Luang Prabang, who declined to be named.
In addition, the governor will establish a new district project on the Mekong River opposite Luang Prabang district at a cost of more than U.S. $2 billion in Chinese investment, the source said.
Investors can’t do anything they want
Early this year, provincial authorities exchanged visits with their Chinese counterparts, after which they made a decision on the land concession.
“The fact is that our province has only given a concession on the surrounding area, which doesn’t include the waterfalls,” said Soudaphone Khomthavong, deputy director of the Information, Culture and Tourism Department of Luang Prabang, who is on one of committees assigned to work on the survey and assessments for the project. “That means the concession does not cover the waterfalls and reserved areas, and no one is allowed to have concessions there — they are managed by state.”
She added that the decision to grant the Chinese company the concession does not mean the investors can do whatever they want.
“There are many steps, including feasibility studies, for example, and many activities [kinds of investment] that the investor will propose for the concession,” she said. “So those activities will be laid out for land plots in the surrounding areas of the waterfalls, and clear surveys will be made on where they should be approved for concession and where they should not.”
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 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.
“These venues used to be public properties, but now they belong to private business,” said a source in Luang Prabang, who declined to be named.
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, he said.