The latest and largest of series of melees among truck drivers stuck at a key Laos-China border crossing erupted on Wednesday, with two serious injuries and arrests reported in a brawl over line-cutting where hundreds of vehicles waited for days to carry perishable fruit across the border, Lao drivers and police said.
China’s strict border controls under its controversial “zero-COVID” policy to curb coronavirus infections have brought mass congestion and flaring tempers among truckers and traders on its long land borders with Laos, Vietnam and Myanmar. The Southeast Asian truckers say border policies often favor Chinese firms at their expense.
Lao truckers said they had to wait about seven or eight days along Route 13 North to reach the Boten-Bohan international border checkpoint in northern Laos’ Luang Namtha province, bordering China. The traffic congestion has choked landlocked Laos’ exports to China, causing losses as bananas and melons quickly spoil in the tropical heat.
Trucks move according to their placement in line, and those who jump the queue are detained and fined. RFA previously reported that fights frequently break out among Lao and Chinese drivers because some Chinese were paying bribes to Lao traffic police to skip the long lines.
This week’s fighting broke out on the road in Nahom village of Oudomxay province, about 40 kilometers from the Laos-China border, when about a dozen Chinese truck drivers beat a Lao truck driver with wooden sticks, leaving him unconscious. The man was taken to a local hospital where he is still being treated.
Later the same day, a score of Lao drivers chased the Chinese truckers and assaulted, seriously injuring one man, according to a witness and a video clip.
“The cause of the fight is the traffic congestion,” a Lao truck driver who witnessed the fight but declined to be named told RFA on Thursday. “Some truckers skip the line.”
The melee began after a Chinese man, who owned watermelons to be delivered to China, cleared the traffic for his Lao truck driver to reach the border crossing, he said.
“Seeing the watermelon truck pass by, a Chinese truck driver got angry and blocked the road with his motorcycle,” the Lao trucker said. “The Lao driver didn’t stop, and hit the motorcycle. The Chinese driver got angrier then hit the Lao driver.”
About 10 other Chinese drivers joined in the assault on the Lao man, he said. Afterwards, as the Chinese advanced to the border gate, a group of Lao truckers blocked and attacked them.
“The fistfight became a large melee,” said the Lao trucker. “One of the Chinese was also badly injured and laid down unconscious in front of the warehouse and the border gate.”
An official at the Chinese Embassy in Vientiane said that the embassy had not received any reports on the incident.
‘Officers went down the line’
Latsavang Pachittham, head of Luang Namtha’s traffic department, said traffic officers saw the truck driven by a Lao man pass other trucks and ordered him to pull over at a gas station.
“Then our officers went down the line to deal with some other traffic problems,” he said on a video clip published Friday by Lao Phattana Daily News. “Suddenly, the Lao truck sped away, passing other trucks.”
When the Chinese man on a motorcycle rode past the truck then blocked the road, the Lao truck driver stopped and got out with a knife in hand, said Letsavang.
“The Chinese attacked him,” he said. “The Chinese called his company, and then the company workers came in a pickup truck to help him beat the Lao man. They along with the Chinese driver advanced to the Boten border gate. Just before the border gate, the friends of the injured Lao guy attacked the Chinese.”
Another Lao trucker, who saw the incident, confirmed the details of the fighting.
“The two drivers had a heated argument, and then the Chinese clubbed the Lao man until he was seriously injured,” said the driver who declined to give his name.
“The Lao guy was injured more seriously than the Chinese one was because the Chinese used two wooden sticks to beat up the Laotian,” he added. “A few Lao police officers were there watching and doing nothing.”
This second Lao driver said the trucks, many of which are transporting watermelons and bananas, must wait in a 40-50 kilometers (25-31 miles) long line along the Route 13 North.
The third Lao trucker told RFA that Lao police tried to stop the violence, but they could not because they were outnumbered, with up to 20 Laotians at the border gate beating about 10 Chinese.
He said that on Thursday, he saw a handful of people involved in the melee being handcuffed.
“I heard that these arrested fighters will be charged according the law,” the driver said.