Train plan upsets Lao villagers
BOPIAT, 11 April 2011 – The people of Bopiat have particular reason to resent the Chinese workmen drilling in the centre of their village in the mountainous far north of Laos.
Around a thousand of them have been told to move because their homes lie in the path of a planned high-speed railway line, funded by Beijing, that will cut across Southeast Asia’s smallest economy from the Chinese border to Vientiane.
It will be the third time in six years they have uprooted their lives, after they had to sacrifice their first village to make way for a Chinese casino in 2005.
The Boten-Vientiane line will be the first railway in landlocked Laos, apart from a short stretch of track near the Thai border, and just one link in a vast network set to connect the southwestern Chinese city of Kunming with Singapore.
Workmen are busily preparing the ground for the tracks, but local people still have no idea where they should move to, or how much they will be compensated for the loss of their homes.
“We have to move on again in April and we don’t know where yet. We don’t have a new place,” said Nang Boa.
The mother-of-three left her original home in 2005, when Communist Laos allowed a Chinese group to build a hotel and casino complex in nearby Boten.
Their new village was far from the main road so the community moved again in 2008, to its current location, around 10 km (6 miles) from the Chinese border, along the road to Louang Namtha, capital of the province.
“Everybody here is happy in the new place. We like it more than the old one and we have brick houses, not wooden ones,” said Bopiat elder Kam Toun.
In 2005, the government gave between five and seven million kips (US$610 to US$850) to each family in compensation for a loss of farmland and to allow them to build new houses, according to the villagers.
This time around they are hoping to be allocated enough space for the whole community to live and cultivate rice crops. They have received promises, but nothing more.
Many Laotians have found themselves in the Bopiat community’s predicament — forced to move by the construction of a road, a mine or a dam financed by China or Vietnam.
“They have no means to say no, otherwise they will get in trouble,” said a foreign observer.
However, these displacements often occur after “a process of negotiation” between villages and authorities, according to Olivier Evrard, anthropologist at France’s Institute for Development Research.
And the number affected by these large infrastructure projects is “tiny” compared with the more than 50% of mountain villages that have disappeared over the last 20 years through a government resettlement programme aimed at ending slash-and-burn cultivation, he said.
But the “sudden” train project could have a social impact for some villages, Evrard predicted, adding that Bopiat was an “extreme case”.
Construction of the 421 kilometre (261 mile) track to Vientiane — which will cost US$7 billion and require 165 bridges and 69 tunnels — must start in April so the line can open in 2015, according to official media.
“They always dreamed of the train. They always were very embarrassed that Laos and Bhutan are the two only countries without railways” in the region, said Leik Boonwaat, acting United Nations resident coordinator.
He said there was great enthusiasm for the project, but expressed regret that no environmental impact study was carried out.
Passion for the new railway can be found even among those in its path.
Kam Your said she is excited about the train, despite the fact that her house and shop, in the village of Ban Na Teuy, lie along the planned line.
“It is good the train is coming, because we have never seen a train before,” she said, adding that she plans to move just a hundred yards back from the tracks.
“And if the train comes, we can sell everything to passengers.”
Provided that the train stops in this lonely outpost in the north of Laos.
“It is probable that the passengers will be primarily Chinese and the villagers will have to make do with watching passing coaches,” Evrard said.
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