Are Chinese nationals being targeted in Laos?

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Laos flag with Chinese flag isolated on a black background. Photo: iStock/Getty Images

Weeks after a Chinese national was shot dead in Laos there has been no public comment on the identity of the attacker, nor a motive for the murder.

But this hasn’t stopped analysts from speculating that the individual was targeted because of growing disaffection with China’s rising economic clout in the landlocked nation.

Shortly after the attack, which took place on June 16 in the central province of Xaysomboun, the Chinese embassy in Vientiane issued a safety advisory for its citizens traveling or residing in Laos.

“The Chinese embassy requested that Laos quickly solve the case and severely punish the killer and at the same time take practical action to ensure the safety of Chinese citizens and organizations in Laos,” read a statement released by the embassy.

Last month’s shooting is the latest in a series of attacks on Chinese nationals in Laos.

In March last year, one Chinese person was killed and three others injured in a shooting in Luang Prabang province. The individuals were workers for a logging company that was clearing land for a hydropower dam, reported Radio Free Asia, a US government-funded news agency.

Two months before, a suspected bomb attack in Xaysomboun province killed two more Chinese nationals, one reportedly an employee of a China-based mining firm.

The repeated attacks on Chinese nationals suggests that they are being targeted because of how China’s rising economic role in Laos is negatively impacting on some locals.

TO GO WITH AFP STORY "LAOS-CHINA-TRANSPORT-SOCIAL,FEATURE" by Amelie Bottollier-DepoisThis picture taken on March 13, 2011 shows Chinese workers who carry out drilling works for soil analyses in preparation for the building of a railway linking China to Laos walking inside Bopiat village in the Northern province of Louang Namtha.  The people of Bopiat have particular reason to resent the Chinese workmen drilling in the centre of their village in the mountainous far north of Laos. Around a thousand of them have been told to move because their homes lie in the path of a planned high-speed railway line, funded by Beijing, that will cut across Southeast Asia's smallest economy from the Chinese border to Vientiane. AFP PHOTO / HOANG DINH Nam / AFP PHOTO / HOANG DINH NAM

Chinese workers survey in preparation for the building of a railway linking China to Laos at Bopiat village in the northern province of Louang Namtha. Photo: AFP/Hoang Dinh Nam 

“The villagers disagree with the government’s decision to have the Chinese to do the logging near their community, and they do not want to be removed from their homes,” Radio Free Asia quoted an anonymous retired soldier saying after the March 2016 attack.

China is now Laos’ largest foreign investor, recently overtaking Vietnam. Chinese-state media claims there are more than 760 Chinese-funded projects in the country, worth almost US$6.7 billion combined.

The landlocked nation is vital for China’s trillion-dollar ‘One Belt, One Road’ Initiative as a route to other nations in Southeast Asia.

“Lao people are generally neutral to Chinese people,” said a Laos-based analyst, who like other sources in this article requested anonymity due to fear of reprisals. “[But] that is probably less true the further north one goes, and there has been significant complaint about the dirty farming methods employed by Chinese companies.”

Special economic zones (SEZs) in the northern region of Laos have swelled in recent years. In many, the local currency, the Laotian kip, is rejected in favor of the Chinese yuan, and control of the ventures is often outside the purview of provincial authorities.

Claims that many regions in the north are being handed over to the Chinese are commonplace, as are suggestions that Lao government officials are selling out sovereignty for personal gains. Those charges often center on controversial hydropower dams that run along the country’s stretch of the Mekong river.

Local opprobrium has recently been directed at Chinese-owned banana plantations in the north. Investors began moving into Laos in 2010 due to land shortages in China and, according to Reuters, banana exports have increased ten-fold in the last decade. The fruit is now thought to be one of Laos’ largest exports, nearly all of which is sent to China.

Luang Prabang, Laos - November 29, 2009: A young female vendor in traditional clothing sits waiting for customers amidst her produce (banana, eggs, melons, baskets) at an outdoor market in Luang Prabang, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

A Lao fruit vendor in traditional clothing sits waiting for customers amidst her produce  at an outdoor market in Luang Prabang. Photo: iStock/Getty Images

While investors purchased land for more than market rates and, though analysts say the plantations have increased employment and brought higher wages to locals, the use of potential dangerous pesticides has sparked controversy.

A National Agriculture and Forestry Institute study published last year found that 63% of plantation workers in the country’s northern regions had become sick over a six-month period. The rate for workers in the central and south regions was roughly half of this figure.

In apparent response, the Lao government prohibited the opening of any new banana plantations last year. In April, news reports confirmed that several farms across seven provinces had been shut down. Other reports, however, noted that the government has faced difficulty in enforcing the ban.

Despite complaints about Chinese investment in Laos and its impact on locals, some analysts believe that this may have little to do with the rising attacks on Chinese nationals. Beijing has usually been keen to make the disconnection, though not after last month’s attack.

Xinhua, the Chinese government’s news agency, noted in an article last year that on the same day as the March 2016 attack, which killed one Chinese national in Luang Prabang province, two separate incidents in the same province injured five Lao nationals when their vehicles were attacked. Xinhua attributed all the attacks to unspecified “militants.”

The January 2016 bombing, which killed two Chinese nationals, took place after two more blasts in the same area that month in which no Chinese nationals were killed or injured. Xinhua’s suggestion is that Chinese are not being targeted because of their nationality, but instead have been the victims of indiscriminate attacks.

The Lao government routinely identifies attacks on the military and civilians as the work of “bandits” who have no political or social motivations.

The fact that most of the attacks that have injured or killed Chinese nationals occurred in Xaysomboun province has led some commentators to speculate that they are related to long-running hostilities between the Lao government and the local ethnic Hmong.

To go with AFP story 'Laos-economy-invest-China,FEATURE' by Amelie Bottollier-DepoisPhoto taken March 11, 2011 shows a Laos' Hmong hill tribe woman and her daughter walking down a street in the border town of Boten, a special economic zone land hired by China, in the Northern province of Luang Namtha. Recently still dependent on foreign development aid, Laos is benefitting from massive investments from its vietnamese and chinese neighbours.  AFP PHOTO / HOANG DINH Nam / AFP PHOTO / HOANG DINH NAM

A Hmong hilltribe woman and her daughter in the Lao border town of Boten, a special economic zone land leased by China in the northern province of Luang Namtha. Photo: AFP/Hoang Dinh Nam 

Many Hmong, a minority group in Laos, fought on the side of the US-backed Lao Royal Army during the country’s Civil War, which ended after three decades with the Communist Pathet Lao’s victory in 1975.

The Hmong population that has remained in Laos, which numbers almost 600,000, has since faced official harassment and intimidation.

Some have moved into remote mountainous areas and continue to oppose the government, though it is thought that just one armed resistance group, the Choa Fa, remains active with only a few hundred soldiers.

Violence in Hmong-populated areas died down during the 2000s but picked up again in late 2015. And Xaysomboun province has become something of an epicenter for Hmong incursions. In November 2015, the US embassy in Laos banned its personnel from traveling to the province due to security concerns, according to media reports.

“Perhaps it is simply that the Chinese are an important financial ally of the [Lao government] at present and by targeting them… it is creating an embarrassment for the Lao government,” a source told Asia Times, regarding the latest killing.

The Economist’s Intelligence Unit reported last year that “a deteriorating security situation runs the risk of tarnishing Laos’ reputation as a destination of Chinese investment and tourism.”

The Lao government is notoriously secretive when it comes to information that could undermine confidence in its rule. And if Chinese nationals are being targeted because of their economic clout or as proxies in the Hmong’s attacks on government targets, it is unlikely to be officially admitted.

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