[Marxism] Laos Dam Failure Exposes Cracks in a Secretive Government’s Agenda

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Jul 30 08:39:39 MDT 2018

(Disgusting. A Vietnamese conglomerate is among the biggest exploiters 
in Laos. Ho Chi Minh must be spinning in his grave.)

NY Times, July 30, 2018
Laos Dam Failure Exposes Cracks in a Secretive Government’s Agenda
By Mike Ives

ATTAPEU, Laos — As heavy rains lashed southern Laos over the weekend, 
volunteers from many countries were continuing to help victims of 
earlier flooding caused by the failure of a foreign-funded hydropower dam.

“It shows the spirit of humanity,” Yen Saisamon, a 17-year-old Laotian 
volunteer, said on Friday at a relief center in the town of Attapeu, 
where cardboard boxes of instant noodles and condiments were labeled in 
Chinese, Thai and Vietnamese.

Yet if foreigners are helping now, they also share a piece of the blame.

The accident at the billion-dollar Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy hydroelectric 
project last week has cast a harsh spotlight on the unspoken compact 
between the ruling Lao People’s Revolutionary Party and giant outside 
financial interests: The companies get access to Lao’s abundant natural 
resources; Laotian officials get some revenue; and no one will cast 
undue scrutiny on investment projects that exacerbate rural poverty — 
or, in this case, kill innocent villagers.

Laos’s one-party communist government and the international financial 
institutions that support it have long embraced a “high-wire act” of 
prioritizing investment over stronger regulation, said Keith Barney, an 
expert on Laos at the Australian National University. But in the 
accident’s wake, “the potential pitfalls of poor regulation are now 
evident for everyone to see,” he said.

The South Korean company that is the main builder of the hydroelectric 
project has admitted that it knew the dam was deteriorating a day before 
it failed.

Mr. Barney said the accident at the dam, part of the hydroelectric 
project, was perhaps the biggest challenge to the ruling party’s 
legitimacy since its handling of the Asian financial crisis in 1997-98, 
which led to rapid inflation. Officials may now face more pressure to 
incorporate social and environmental protections for rural people in the 
push for development, he said.

“Their response could either build confidence in the government or 
undermine it,” Mr. Barney said, likening the challenge to the one that 
President George W. Bush faced after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Laos, a former French colony, has a history of exploitation by foreign 
powers. In the precolonial era, for example, people from present-day 
Laos were sent as slaves to a kingdom in what is now Thailand. And 
during the Vietnam War, Laos was a prime target of the United States, 
which made it one of the most heavily bombed places on earth.

In the decades since the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party came to power 
in 1975, the government has pursued an economic model that prioritizes 
selling off land, timber, minerals and other resources to giant 
conglomerates from China, Thailand, Vietnam and elsewhere. A 
high-profile example is a continuing project by Chinese engineers to 
drill hundreds of tunnels and bridges through Laos to support a railway 
that will eventually connect several Asian countries.

Laos has been promoting hydroelectric power investments since the 1990s, 
and while initial financing came from the World Bank and other 
development agencies, the clear trend has been toward corporate funding, 
said Philip Hirsch, an emeritus professor at the University of Sydney in 
Australia who has studied hydroelectric power in the Mekong region for 

The government has said it wants hydroelectric dams to transform Laos 
into Southeast Asia’s “battery.”

Laos’s approach to development has paid off handsomely for domestic 
elites, while often leaving the rural poor at the mercy of foreign 

Analysts see Attapeu Province, where the flooding occurred, as a case 
study. Even though it is brimming with logging, agribusiness, mining and 
hydropower projects, villagers “generally don’t reap many benefits from 
these activities” and instead face the most significant social and 
environmental impacts, said Miles Kenney-Lazar, an expert on Laos at 
Kyoto University in Japan.

Well before the accident last Monday, foreign-funded projects in Attapeu 
had caused deforestation, loss of access to traditional lands and 
forests, chemical pollution of waterways and rapidly changing water 
levels, Mr. Kenney-Lazar said.

His research has focused on the province’s largest Vietnamese investor, 
the Hoang Anh Gia Lai Group, which operates rubber plantations and other 
businesses and which advocacy groups have accused  of thuggish 
land-grabbing tactics in Laos and in neighboring Cambodia. (The company 
has denied the accusations.)

After the flash floods that the dam failure set off last week, a top 
Laotian official blamed substandard construction. The main builder of 
the hydroelectric project, SK Engineering & Construction of South Korea, 
said on Friday that it would take responsibility if a formal 
investigation found it culpable. The company has acknowledged seeing 
troubling signs before the accident, saying it “immediately” reported 
damage to the local authorities.

But Laos will probably not allow an independent inquiry, in part because 
the government owns 25 percent of the hydroelectric project and was 
supposed to have regulatory oversight of its planning and construction, 
said David J. H. Blake, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of 
York in England who has written widely on Laos.

The accident has prompted some quiet criticism of the government by 
ordinary Laotians, but people in this country of about seven million are 
generally reluctant to speak out. That is especially true since the 2013 
disappearance of Sombath Somphone, a United States-trained agriculture 
specialist, in an episode widely seen as a warning to government critics.

Mr. Blake said the accident would not threaten the party’s dominance, in 
part because the government is tightly controlling the narrative in the 
state-controlled news media. Relief donations in Attapeu Province may 
even help strengthen the party’s hand in the worst-hit areas, he added, 
by “giving more power and control to the state-party machinery.”

The state-controlled news media has provided shifting and contradictory 
statements about the number killed in the accident — putting the death 
toll at 27, for example, but later revising it to four. Independent 
analysts say the deaths could exceed 27, as volunteer rescue groups 
continued to operate in the flooded areas.

On Saturday, the official Vientiane Times warned of “fake news” posted 
on social media and reported by some foreign news outlets, and said that 
Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith had urged Laotians to follow only 
official sources for updates. The government has warned foreign news 
organizations not to report on the accident independently.

In the town of Attapeu, the flood-relief effort is being run partly out 
of the Hoang Anh-Attapeu Hotel, which is named after the Hoang Anh Gia 
Lai Group, the same Vietnamese conglomerate that advocacy groups accuse 
of environmental and human rights abuses. The hotel’s seven managers are 
all Vietnamese, said one of them, Nguyen Chi Cuong.

“Laos is pretty undeveloped,” Mr. Cuong, speaking in Vietnamese, said on 
Friday in the hotel’s high-ceilinged dining room.

In the marbled lobby, men in pressed slacks and dress shirts watched as 
Laotian workers unloaded toilet paper, toothpaste and instant noodles — 
supplies for the flood victims — from a delivery truck in the parking 
lot. Some of the supervisors wore shirts that said SK Engineering & 

A receptionist, Soukkida Senonghiem, said that while foreign investment 
was generally good for Laos, it was ordinary people who suffered when 
projects went awry.

Still, she said, this particular accident had a silver lining.

“It’s lucky that the dead are our own people, not foreigners,” she said. 
“That might have affected our image and caused bigger problems.”

Follow Mike Ives on Twitter: @mikeives.

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