The beautiful Mekong island is now part of an SEZ – or gambling haven in other words
1 Mar 2017
WRITER: PASKORN JUMLONGRACH
Falling down the trees like flames, the leaves of red cotton-tree flowers — Indian kapok — brighten the Mekong island with their fiery colour. February is blooming season for these red trees. Along the dusty road, children collect the fallen flowers and pick the pollen to sell as a main ingredient for northern Thailand’s favourite dish, nam ngiew. The flowers are their seasonal source of income.
At the Golden Triangle, Laos’ Don Sao island on the bank of the Mekong lies opposite Chaing Saen in Chiang Rai province. The area in the past was just a small market where locals came to sell and shop. But things have changed in the past decade. These days the island is, officially, no longer Lao territory but part of the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone, with a 99-year concession given to the Kings Romans Group, owned by well-known businessman Zhao Wei, who is turning this remote corner of the world into a “Jungle Vegas”.
A few years before the Special Economic Zone (SEZ) was declared, I had a chance to participate in ceremonies for community-run forest and river protected areas, also on the Mekong. At that time villagers who were to relocate for the SEZ came out to raise their concerns and oppose the concession. The land that their ancestors lived on for hundreds of years was about to legally be given to outsiders. Unfortunately, this rare movement of Lao people demanding their rights lasted only a few years. Ordinary villagers of the remote district of Ton Pheung simply could not stand up to the power of the state and foreign businesses.
One of the villages in the area is Ban Kwan. I remember the frustrated and exhausted eyes of the villagers who would be relocated. The most painful thing for them is that the old Buddhist temple was to be moved. I talked to an old Lao man, who used to work with his comrades during the war until his nation survived, who was extremely disappointed to see the development policy going against the locals.
Nine villages were resettled. Communities fell apart. The locals said their houses at the resettlement site were not liveable, due to limited access to resources. The young crossed the Mekong and worked in Thailand. Only a handful could get a job in the SEZ.
At present, Don Sao, which was a lush island on the Mekong, has fully become a part of the SEZ. With all the newly-built infrastructure, natural beauty of the area has gradually vanished. Grass banks and wetland along the Mekong are now fully covered by a concrete embankment. The local market is now replaced by the new system. Once a tourist steps onto the island, he or she needs to pay entrance fee.
“I am not sure how long I will be able to run my shop. Rent is becoming more and more expensive for us. There are lots of vendors from other countries: Myanmar, China,” a Lao said when asked about this year’s Kapok Flower Festival. “At first they allowed the local vendors to keep our shop here. But the cost of rent is getting higher each time.”
Ton Pheung SEZ has become well-known for casino and other kinds of “grey” entertainments. According to official numbers, each year around 100,000 tourists, mostly Chinese, visit the island, mainly for gambling. It is noticed that Zhao Wei has been influential not only in Lao, but on the opposite bank of the Mekong, in Thailand. Many times I’ve seen Thai police cars leading tourist vans, leaving Chiang Rai’s Mae Fah Luang airport for the border checkpoint in Chiang Saen. At the Chaing Rai airport, Kings Romans also openly rents a reception room for clients just arrived.
It is saddening to see the collapsed city of Suwanna-Khomkham, a part of the ancient Chiang Saen, which has recently been swollen by the dragon from upstream.
The mighty Mekong River that has fed the people and culture of mainland Southeast Asia for centuries is also being exploited for commercial navigation and hydropower.
The way Chinese investors expand their business into territories along the Mekong River, with official support from their government, has been seen as an invasion that in many cases ignores local voices. Local communities, in most cases, have not been respected.
The flame flowers are still falling down the trees. Children are running to pick them up, as usual. But the local dwellers of Ton Pheung realise that nothing is as it used to be. They have simply been dispossessed and still have to sort out a way to make a living.