Lao Restaurant Owner to Get Justice in Land-Grab Case

A land-grab victim in northern Laos’ Xieng Khouang province is entitled to lease back nearly 6,000 square meters of land seized from her last year by the provincial governor to make way for a bank, though national lawmakers must finalize the issue, a source with knowledge of the situation said.

In April 2015, provincial governor Somkod Mengnormek illegally appropriated land leased to Bouapha Phommachith, which housed the Meuang Phoune restaurant, to sell to the Lao central bank for U.S. $2 million for the construction of a new bank building.

After Bouapha appealed to various legal authorities for justice, the province’s chief prosecutor took up the case and notified the National Assembly in March of this year that she was entitled to lease the land taken from her in due time, but did not specify a date, said the source who declined to be named.

Now the matter is in the hands of national lawmakers who must issue an official notice to the central government to resolve it, he said.

Bouapha had leased the land from the state since 2005 when she signed a contract with the former provincial governor, the same source told RFA last year.

Though the lease expired in 2012, an article in the contract gave Bouapha the right to renew the lease for two additional 15-year periods, he said.

But when Somkod became governor, he decided to sell the land to the central bank and ordered Bouapha to move.

When she refused, Somkod ordered local police to bulldoze the restaurant and detained two of Bouapha’s relatives for 13 days for obstructing the enforcement officers, the source said.

After the restaurant was destroyed, Bouapha filed a claim for compensation for all the money she had invested in the rented property and restaurant.

In early 2015, Bouapha submitted complaints to the Ministry of Justice, National Assembly, and Government’s Office, formerly known as the Prime Minister’s Office, the source said.

After that, Ket Kiattisak, deputy minister of justice, sent a notice to Somkod to not destroy the restaurant until the matter had been resolved, the source said. At the time, the parliament’s petition department had also started working on the case.

Sonexay Siphandone, minister of the Government’s Office, also sent an official letter to Somkod to implement the rule of law, the source said.

Vendors lose market

Somkod also stirred up trouble last October with some local vendors by ordering them to leave the provincial agricultural market in Peak district and giving the land concession to a Chinese investor to build a shopping mall, said a source who declined to be named.

The vendors had rented the land from former provincial authorities for many decades and have a current lease that expires in 2017, he said.

Now that the vendors have been relocated to a temporary market near the former provincial airport about one kilometer away, they complain that they can no longer sell as many products in the new location, he said.

“The governor has removed the vendors to that market, and in the meantime he has allowed a Chinese businessman to set up slot machines, nightclubs, and guesthouses with sex workers in the former market area,” he said.

The vendors tried to take action against Somkod for the land grab, but they were threatened with imprisonment, he said.

In Laos, where all land belongs to the state, several provincial governors and family members of national leaders have been involved in land grabs, not only because the land in urban areas is expensive, but also because they can profit by selling the land to other people or companies that grow rubber plantations.

Rights groups say the illegal appropriations violate basic human rights, including the right to food, housing, and prevention of forced eviction.