Authorities in Laos’ Vientiane province have arrested two people for sharing on social media a video that documented an argument with police over a land dispute in their village, sources in the village told RFA.
The conflict occurred Monday in Xiengda village in Vientiane’s Saysettha district. Officials and police were clearing land to build a campus for a medical college, a food and drug center and a 400-bed hospital, but the villagers who had to give up their land for the project protested, saying they needed fair compensation.
In the video, which was posted on Facebook Monday, one of the arrestees, a man named Poy, is seen arguing with police and officials.
“We are demanding fair compensation for the loss of our land, because we have not yet reached an agreement on price,” said Poy in the video.
“You are abusing your state-backed power to steal my land. I disagree with handing it over to you,” he said.
Poy and another villager, a woman named Keo were arrested over the next two days after the video appeared on Facebook Monday.
A resident of Xiengda village told RFA’s Lao Service Thursday, “Poy and Keo should not be arrested for merely posting the video on Facebook.”
“People can use their smartphones to record what happens to them so that they have evidence if something terrible occurs. Also taking photos and videos there isn’t against any laws,” the villager said.
Another villager told RFA, that the villagers were fully cooperating with authorities and not physically resisting the land-clearing operation.
“We were just requesting fair compensation. They had proposed that the project compensate us at a cost of 1,500 Thai baht per square meter [U.S. $4.26 per square foot], and to provide each family with a new 500 square meter [5382 square feet] plot of land,” the second villager said.
A village official told RFA on the same day that Poy and Keo had not been officially detained.
“They are only being reeducated in the district police station. There’s no problem. The police will reeducate and release them,” the official said.
“They were taken to the police station for defaming the police and officials on duty and posting it on Facebook, which is just not right,” the official added.
The official also said that the area in question was state land and it was once a national forest preserve.
RFA spoke to Linthong, an official of the medical college project, who said the villagers were merely being opportunistic.
“They settle the land in a forest preserve to eke out a small living, but when the land suddenly becomes more valuable, they try to take it over,” said Linthong.
Keo’s father told RFA Friday that he was trying to secure her release.
“I am filing for the police to release my daughter. They told me she resisted against the police,” he said.
Poy’s family is also requesting his release.
According to residents of the village, the project area was not a forest preserve, but communal land that was used as a collective farm to grow rice from 1979-1980, which failed.
Villagers started occupying the land for their own agricultural purposes, but the government never issued them permanent land titles, regardless of how long they resided there.
A third villager told RFA, “I lost 8,000 square meters [86,111 square feet] of my land to the government, but they just gave me 1.2 million kip [$134]. That is not a fair price.”
A Lao land expert told RFA that the arrest and detention of villagers who demand fair compensation is not new and it frequently happens in areas needed for government projects.
The expert added that no matter how long the villagers lived on the land, even if their occupancy precedes the forestry laws, they can still be removed for occupying state land.
Laos often comes under criticism for land grabs in which authorities seize land from people for development projects without paying them fair compensation for lost crops, property, and livelihoods.
Rights groups say the illegal appropriations violate basic human rights and that such land grabs are a major cause of social tensions in Laos and in neighboring countries in Southeast Asia.
Reported and translated by RFA’s Lao Service. Written in English by Eugene Whong.