Top Lao and Thai transportation officials will meet this week in an attempt to iron out some of their differences over a railway that would link the Lao capital of Vientiane with Thailand’s Nong Khai, RFA’s Lao Service has learned.
While the exact date of the meeting in the northern Lao province of Luangprabang is unknown, Lao officials say that they plan to attempt to resolve some of the outstanding issues, including design of a new Mekong river bridge.
During a meeting in July, officials in the two countries failed to agree on critical elements of the bridge’s design, including the gauge of the railway.
“Both sides discussed the design of new Mekong bridge between Laos’ Vientiane capital and Thailand’s Nong Khai province to accommodate the railway linked to Thailand,” according to a July 15 report by the Ministry of Public Works and Transportation that was obtained by RFA.
Lao officials want to build a new bridge using the standard 1.435-meter track gauge, but Thai officials also want the bridge to also accommodate the 1-meter gauge track that is used in that country, according to the report.
“Both sides assigned their railway departments to discuss more details, and in the meantime they will present the new Mekong bridge project as part of the Lao-Chinese and a Thai-Chinese railway projects,” the report said.
A new span crossing the Mekong is necessary so that railway service will eventually become part of a 3,000-km (1,800-mile) regional rail line running from Kunming in southern China’s Yunnan province through Laos, Thailand and Malaysia to Singapore.
Base camp construction
The meeting comes at a critical juncture for the railway as more than 40 Chinese railway engineers and technicians have come to Vientiane to work on the railway and have begun construction on a base camp from which to build the 40-mile (56-km) leg between the Lao capital and Phon-hong.
Calls to officials with the ministry, the Laos-China Railway project and the Lao National Railway Company went unreturned, but an official in the Phon-hong district told RFA the Chinese had completed their camp near Mai village.
“Now they [the China Railway No.2 Engineering Group Co.] have just constructed the camp,” the officials said. “According to the committee, they will start constructing the railroad from the capital to Vientiane province.”
While the government and the Chinese technicians push ahead, questions remain over compensation for the people being displaced by the railway and who will ultimately reap the rewards.
“People told us that they need fair compensation of 200–300 million kip (U.S. $25,000-37,000) so that they can use the money to buy land to build new houses,” an Oudomxay province official, who is charge of the compensation, told RFA.
“Now the cost of land is higher than it was, and it is difficult to find appropriate locations,” the official said. “Land now costs 500,000 kip (U.S. $62) per square meter, and if the compensation is less than 200 million kip (U.S. $25,000) it cannot cover the payment of the new resettlement.”
The Lao and Chinese government have made several agreements related to the railway that is expected to cost U.S. $6 billion, including a hundreds of millions in Chinese-backed loans. But the project still has detractors in Laos.
“The idea of the Lao-Chinese railway was not originally created by the Lao government, but it came from the Chinese government so that it can expand its power in the region through ‘One Belt, One Road’ policy,” said a Lao civil society organization official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The One Belt, One Road development strategy focuses on connectivity and cooperation among countries primarily between China and the rest of Eurasia.
The Lao people have also questioned the railway’s benefits, with one telling RFA the government needs to open up its process to outside voices.
“The government has to open up the opportunity for people at all levels to voice their opinions, and to stage peaceful protests if they do not agree with this project in order to make sure all the Lao people have a chance to participate,” said one resident.
The civil society organization official was more critical.
“The question is: Who will benefit from the project when 80 per cent of the Lao population consists of poor people? The answer is the Chinese,” the official said.