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One More Invasion of Laos

June 07, 2019 china Indochina Laos Railway

The author first went to Luang Prabang, Laos in 1969 and encountered a number of unwanted North Vietnamese tanks some nine miles north of the capital. There was a continuous debate as to whether the North Vietnamese would actually invade the capital where we had a facility to fuel CIA-backed Hmong fighters and their aircraft. The belief was the Vietnamese would not capture Luang Prabang as it would jeopardize the relationship with the Lao people given their close association with King Savang Vatthana. That argument was a bit weak in that the North Vietnamese showed no restraint in capturing the historic capital of Hue earlier that year in South Vietnam. Nonetheless, we felt a bit more at ease sleeping at night as the Hmong T-28 prop planes dropped their ordinance only a few minutes after taking off multiple times a day.

The North Vietnamese invaded Laos in 1967 with a multi-division attack to come to the assistance of Pathet Lao communist forces against the U.S.-backed Royal Lao Army. The tank movements at the outskirts of Luang Prabang two years later were to dislodge the more effective CIA-financed Hmong guerrilla fighters under Vang Pao. Over the period until the surrender of King Savang Vatthana in 1975, the U.S. managed to provide Laos with the distinction of being the most heavily bombed per capita country in the world while contributing a level of financial aid that was twice the economy of the country.

Fortunately, the Vietnamese conquerors did little to impair the beauty and serenity of Luang Prabang and the Mekong River. The photo below, taken by the author several years ago, reflects a Mekong pretty much like that of fifty years back without the tanks.

That serenity in a popular tourist destination is soon to be destroyed by another invasion and this time it is the Chinese with the blessing of the Lao Government. Perhaps it is a repeat of the Indochine colonization by the French prior to World War II. NPR News recently published an article by Ashley Westerman entitled In Laos, a Chinese-Funded Railway Sparks Hope for Growth-And Fears of Debt. The tranquil setting shown above is about to be radically changed just nine miles north of Luang Prabang.  

Laos, as the only land-locked country in Southeast Asia, was always the orphan child of former Indochina. The French made money in Vietnam and a bit in Cambodia to support the lack of any economy in Laos. Therefore, the Chinese have promised an economic bonanza to the Lao people while their big brother former Vietnamese invaders have turned a blind eye to it.

As part of the Chinese worldwide "Belt and Road" campaign, they are building a 250-mile railway link from southern Yunan Province in China to Vientiane, Laos to connect it with access to Thailand. Part of that railway involves the awful structures shown below that are being constructed in the Mekong River section shown above to totally destroy the habitat. On either side of the bank, railway pylons are being built up to the mountain tops on each side. Somehow, the tanks fifty years ago were more pleasing to the eye than this mess-invading tanks to pylons does not necessarily mean development progress. The railway is due to be completed in 2021.

"Once completed, the railway will benefit Lao people of all ethnic groups, facilitate and reduce costs of transportation, stimulate the development of agricultural and industrial sectors, tourism, investment and trade, as well as generate income for Lao people and the country," Lao Minister of Public Works and Transport Bouchanh Sinthavong said during the groundbreaking ceremony outside Luang Prabang in 2016.  

The approximate $6 billion tab for the railway will be borne 70% by the Chinese and Laos will finance the remaining 30% with a loan from the Chinese which they will never be able to repay. The Chinese promise jobs for impoverished Lao people though there is no evidence of any Lao people at work which has been the case in just about everything China has done around the world. Does it appear that the Chinese characters compared to the Lao script above are larger than the 70/30 financial split? At least the Chinese were sufficiently respectful of the Lao to include their language which the Chinese will never bother to learn.

Often China will release prisoners from their sentences to become slaves on a foreign construction project for five years of servitude and preclude their return to China while ensuring they receive citizenship in the country where they worked. Indebtedness can easily create personal, as well as national servitude. No responsible financial institution would finance a project such as this one in Laos unless they wanted to foreclose and own the asset or the country.

If you look more closely at the image above, you will observe that the barge is Chinese as are the workers. Therefore, the expected employment boom for the Lao people has not happened and is an illusory dream for the future. As to tourism, the more sophisticated Luang Prabang tourists of today will be eliminated in favor of hordes of Chinese that might decline to pay the hotel rates of the serene Aman, Avanti and Rosewood hotels there. At the other extreme, few backpackers would find masses of Chinese tourists with guides blasting orders on megaphones very appealing.

Accordingly, the more predictable outcome of the environmental disaster for this pristine place is minimal impact on the Lao economy other than the stifling debt repayment that will likely bankrupt the country. On balance, it looks like a homerun for the Chinese to further their national interests at the expense of the environment of Laos to say nothing about the impact on the Lao people.

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