A Lao police officer and three men associated with country’s military, who are accused of squatting on a three-hectare parcel of land in Luang Prabang province, recently fired their weapons in an attempt to fend off a local woman who claims title to the land, the woman told RFA’s Lao service.
“I went to clear the land on March 5, and some soldiers who are living there fired in the air to threaten me,” Outhaivanh Paladvong told RFA’s Lao Service. “After that I informed the police in Luang Prabang district but no one helped me address the problem.”
Outhaivanh told RFA that she has been trying to move the men off the property located in Phonexay village, Luang Prabang district, for years, but she has been stymied as local officials have sat idly by as the men erected structures and even sold off plots of the land.
“It is my land where the military officers have built their houses, and some plots of land have been sold off,” she said. “The conflict has been going on for five years and they still resist.”
According to Outhaivanh, the occupiers of her land are police officer Onsy Xaysomphou; retired Lt. Colonel Douangchanh Thidsompong; Lt. Colonel Onkeo Xayphouvanh, a soldier working at a provincial prosecution organization; and a major surnamed Bounsy.
RFA contacted Lt. Colonel Onkeo Xayphouvanh, but he refused to comment.
While Outhaivanh claims to own the land, an official with the provincial natural resources and environment department, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told RFA the land is held by someone else.
“The land does not belong to Ms. Outhaivanh,” the official said. “She is now nominated to hold the land title by Mr. Thieng Douangpaseuth, who is powerful in the construction business in Luang Prabang.”
The official claims that Outhaivanh is working as a front because the local government refuses to give any new deeds to Thieng Dounpaseuth.
“Outhaivanh is working as a secretary at the company, and she is a nominee because Thieng Dounpaseuth has many plots of land in the province and the provincial authorities are not willing to issue titles for him,” the official said.
While the dispute came to a head in March, it has been simmering since at least 2012 when Outhaivanh asked the provincial military commander to resolve the conflict, but he refused, saying it was a private matter.
In March 2014 Khammane Chanthalungsy, a provincial cabinet officer, told the local officials to revoke the deeds held by the men because the titles were illegal. He ordered the land returned to Outhaivanh.
The dispute stems from the military’s decision to resettle the men on the land when they were evicted from property they held that was used for a local airport.
Many title fights
While the land dispute pits Outhaivanh against the men who now occupy the parcel, it is an example of the difficulty of enforcing property rights in Laos where all land formally belongs to the state.
In actuality, land titles often change hands when administrations change, often leaving several people fighting over competing claims.
Luang Prabang has been at the center of many land disputes in Laos since the ancient capital was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995.
It is the most popular Lao city for both domestic and international tourists and has attracted foreign investors who have pumped money into local real estate projects after winning land concessions from the government.
In 2009, former governor, Bounheuang Douangpachanh gave a Korean investor a land concession for golf course project and then he ordered police to detain a few villagers who resisted. They were held for two years.
In another case in 2015, a different former governor gave a Chinese investor a land concession surrounding Khouangxi waterfall, a popular tourist attraction.
Several provincial governors and family members of national leaders have been involved in land grabs, often profitting by selling the land to other people or to companies that grow rubber plantations.
In August 2014, Sommaly Thammavong, the daughter-in-law of Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong, was involved in a land-grab case in Saphanthong Tai village in the capital Vientiane.
Rights groups say the illegal appropriations violate basic human rights, including the right to food, housing and prevention of forced eviction.