Criminal gangs tarnish Golden Triangle
Bo Keo airport which is under construction in the northern part of Laos may give the impression of economic development in this once quiet corner of the world.
The airport which is located on the Golden Triangle -- a stone's throw from Thailand's Mae Fah Luang airport on the opposite side of the Mekong River -- is part of a mega-project pursued by Zhao Wei, a Chinese tycoon who owns Kings Romans Casino, an infamous gambling outlet on the Thai-Lao border.
Inarguably, this 75%-complete modern airport attests to the fact that the Lao government blindly accepts foreign development projects. It also raises a question about the future of this culturally rich land which is now regarded as the Chinese investors' "extra-territorial jurisdiction site".
It also raises serious question about sustainability.
Such concerns became loud and clear following reports about the fate of several job seekers from Thailand who were lured by the promise of work at the casino, only the to find themselves in illegal roles. Some were able to flee back to Thai soil on their own, others had to seek assistance from Thai-Lao rescue operation teams.
Casinos and other related activities are an engine for the rapid growth of this business empire over the past 10 years. Apart from being incompatible with local culture, the empire is a breeding ground for a number of illegal businesses, including narcotics and wildlife smuggling as well as human trafficking.
A woman who was lured to Kings Romans said she was encouraged by a relative to apply for a job at the casino which offered an attractive income, a minimum of 30,000 baht per month. She went there with a group of friends, crossing the border through natural channels. They were greeted by a team of Chinese men who took them to a building near the casino.
But it was not the casino job she was expecting. Instead, the woman said the group was forced into operating online scams using fake Instagram and Facebook accounts. After making the money, with some victims losing millions of baht, the Chinese would close down the "company" and then reopen under a new name to escape the law.
The woman said she had to work 15 hours a day under close watch. The victims were Thais, Chinese and Westerners. Those who refused to do the job would be traded to other firms and finally several ended up in a brothel.
She pointed out that several hundred Thai as well as Chinese women were duped into the rings. Some had to hire local people to help them escape, while others sought help from embassies, but the process was sluggish, except for a few who managed to get media attention.
A large number of young people were still trapped behind the empire's walls, she said.
Zhao Wei initiated the Golden Triangle economic zone in 2007 having won a 99-year lease covering a vast area of 3,000 hectares from the Lao government is to develop casinos, hotels, shopping centres and an airport.
According to research by Pinkaew Luangaramsri, a lecturer at Chiang Mai University, the Lao government holds Zhao Wei in high regard, while his empire is frequented by high-level Lao officials. Her work is featured in the book, Transforming sovereignty into commodity: Chinese special economic zone and development in Laos, edited by Prof Yot Santasombat.
Before setting up in Laos, Zhao Wei, a native of China's Heilongjiang province, operated casinos in Macao and in Mong La, a town on the border between China's Yunnan province and a rebel-controlled zone in Myanmar. As the place was an attraction for numerous Chinese officials, the Chinese government became uncomfortable and it pressured the tycoon hard to close down the business. That was the beginning of Kings Romans Empire in the Golden Triangle.
I visited the area more than 10 years ago when local villagers held forest- and water- ordination ceremony in the hope they could keep the forest and land away from the Chinese investment project. The villagers were angry when they heard about the notorious lease and tried to resist. They submitted a petition letter to the government, but it was of no use. Kings Romans swallowed their ancestral land, temples, villages and communities.
In fact, the Abhisit Vejjajiva administration formerly planned to propose the areas on both sides of the Mekong River be registered as a World Heritage site. Historical and archaeological evidence suggests that the areas used to be home to Suvannakomkam, an ancient Buddhist town. Unfortunately, the proposal never materialised.
It's a well-known fact that the Kings Romans project is a grey business. Due to his alleged involvement in drug trafficking in the Golden Triangle, Zhao Wei is on the US government's blacklist.
"They can do anything, we the villagers lost rice fields and homes. We have no idea what to do to earn a living. The government prohibits us from doing this and that as if this is not our land," one villager shared with me his bitterness. Foreigners are required to pay fees, collected by the Chinese, if they want to enter the land.
"The place where we were forced to work was near the casino. There are similar buildings on the compound. The Lao authorities gave [the Chinese] a free hand. Our Lao friends wanted to escape but no one helped them. They dared not raise their voice for fear that their boss would sell them away to other companies," the rescued Thai woman told me.
The Chinese government, well aware of the adverse effect on its citizens, refused to tolerate Zhao Wei's empire, forcing him to relocate from the Myanmar-China border.
Home to Kings Romans, the Golden Triangle is known for all kinds of trouble. Yet, the Thai government has never said anything, let alone taken action, even though so many Thais have fallen victim to heinous crimes. The land once known for calm and peacefulness has changed.
And with this silence, the Thai government has invited not only questions, but also deafening criticism.
Founder and reporter of www.transbordernews.in.th
Passakorn Jumlongrach is founder and reporter of www.transbordernews.in.th