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A man paddles his boat through a flooded village after a dam in southeastern Laos collapsed, in the Sanamxay district, Attapeu province, Laos. A United Nations human rights expert is urging Laos to focus less on big, foreign-invested dam and railway contracts. Photo: AP

‘Too few jobs and too much debt’: UN rights envoy warns Laos of favouring China’s belt and road over its people

  • UN rapporteur said the impoverished economy’s current strategy of favouring big-ticket Chinese projects and granting big concessions for land and resources is leaving many citizens behind

A United Nations human rights expert has urged communist-ruled Laos to focus less on foreign-invested dam and railway contracts and devote more resources to helping its children and the poor.

The UN rapporteur on poverty, Philip Alston, said Laos’ impoverished economy can only thrive if its leaders do a better job of educating and caring for all of its people. The current strategy of favouring big-ticket projects with Chinese investors and granting big concessions for land and other resources favours a wealthy elite and is leaving many others behind, he said.

Alston made the remarks in a news conference live-streamed from Laos’ capital, Vientiane, after he toured parts of rural Laos, including an area devastated by a dam collapse last year.

It added to a chorus of concern over China’s push for big construction projects linked to its “Belt and Road Initiative”, which is aimed at weaving a global network of transport and trade that is integrated with its own economy and industries.

China’s US$7 billion railway link to Laos is almost half done, on schedule to begin service in 2021

Tucked between Thailand, China, Myanmar and Cambodia, tiny Laos’ economy has grown quickly in recent years, but the benefits of that growth have not reached many in its largely rural population.

Alston said many infrastructure and plantation projects take land from local residents, forcing their resettlement. Most generate too few jobs and result in too much debt, he said.

Laos: weaving a better future

“Those concessions potentially cover something like 40 per cent of the national territory and many if not most of those concessions have produced very few returns to the national budget,” he said. “They have generated very little real revenue that can be spent on the well-being of the Lao people and of course they have led to widespread dispossession.”

A Lao foreign ministry official, Phetvanxay Khousakoun, objected to Alston’s comments.

“Some of that information that you received might be biased. Also, NGOs might have hidden agendas. This might provide you some misperceptions about Laos,” he said. “These are rather small groups of people that do not reflect the entire country.”

The official also suggested Alston’s comments went beyond his mandate.

Alston praised the government for allowing his 11-day visit to the country. But he countered that his findings were in line with his mission.

China’s ‘Belt and Road Initiative’: after five years, is the bloom off the rose?

“These challenges can only be met if they are acknowledged,” he said.

He noted that women in Laos are largely shut out of decision making, and that the ethnic minorities who make up nearly half of the population are “severely deprived” by nearly every measure, with low incomes and inferior access to education and health care.

Despite major progress in alleviating poverty, more than one-fifth of Lao children are underweight, 9 per cent suffer from “wasting,” or severe malnutrition and a third are stunted. Less than half have been vaccinated.

“You might have no interest in children, but all you have to know is they are the economic future,” he said. “You’re not going to have a great workforce with those statistics as your starting point.”

Chinese tourist ‘invasion’ feared as high-speed Laos-China Railway will boost visitor numbers dramatically

Alston, an Australian who is based in the US, acknowledged that all countries struggle with poverty.

He said the government’s pursuit of resource-oriented foreign investment such as rubber plantations, mining and hydroelectric dams is directly linked to poverty because they fail to generate tax revenues or jobs needed to address poverty.

“Poverty is a political choice,” he said. “When you decide to spend money on something else, you produce poverty or you perpetuate poverty.”