Authorities in southern Laos’ Sekong province have released two underage detainees held with other villagers now being tried in a closed court for their involvement in a dispute over land granted by the government to a Vietnamese rubber company.
The two detainees—Ny, a girl, and Nak, a boy—were freed in the first week of June, a resident of Sekong’s Yeub village told RFA’s Lao Service on June 5.
“They have already been released, but have been forbidden to tell other people about their time in detention and experiences in jail, and they are scared to talk about it,” RFA’s source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Speaking to RFA, Sekong deputy governor Leklay Sivilay confirmed on May 31 that the two young villagers were scheduled to be freed, adding that the court case against the others was proceeding “according to law” and would soon be settled.
“I don’t think it will take too much time now to resolve this situation,” Leklay said. “Especially in the case of two who are kids, a boy and a girl, they will be released soon following legal procedures, which are almost complete.”
Speaking later to Lao state media, however, Leklay appeared to deny all facts connected to the case, condemning RFA for what he called its “untrue and unacceptable” reporting on the villagers’ complaints and arrests.
“RFA intentionally wants to crack down on and destroy the [Lao] nation,” Leklay told media outlets Pathedlao and Vientiane Mai on June 5.
“On behalf of the Sekong administration and its multi-ethnic minority groups, I would like to condemn RFA for its groundless and speculative reporting, and for its lack of professional ethics.”
Beatings, failing health
In July 2017, 14 residents of Yeub village in Sekong’s Thateng district were taken into custody by police for obstructing workers and cutting down trees on land granted by the government to a Vietnamese rubber company in what is believed to have been a 50-year concession.
Several of those now held in detention were beaten or subjected to electric shocks in the days following their arrest, and many are now malnourished and in failing health, relatives told RFA in earlier reports.
Another, a man named Somsavanh, died in jail on Jan. 29 in what authorities described as a “suicide,” though a relative said the man’s funeral was later arranged by authorities, leaving family members unable to participate or perform religious rites.
Much of Laos’s economic growth is generated through land concessions for natural resources, including timber, agricultural products, minerals, and energy, even though these come at a cost for those who lose their land and many not receive proper compensation.
Land grabs and the appropriation of public property to turn over to foreign and domestic companies are common in Laos, and villagers affected by them often refuse to speak out publicly because they fear retribution.
In an Oct. 23, 2017 speech to Laos’s National Assembly, Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith said that loopholes in Lao land laws must be closed to ensure that the interests of the country’s common people are not ignored as “individuals and business groups” scramble for wealth.
Reported and translated by Ounkeo Souksavanh for RFA’s Lao Service. Written in English by Richard Finney.