Date of this Version
December 18, 2008 in The China Beat http://www.thechinabeat.org/
Chimes jingle on gold-painted stupas and teenagers strum guitars to the beat of passing tuk-tuks in Luang Prabang, Laos’ UNESCO World Heritage sight nestled on the Mekong. Sadly, a more obtrusive rhythm has hit the scene: the squawk of walkie-talkie phones. Like a large percentage of Lao’s motorbikes, clothes and electronics, the walkie-talkie phones are a Chinese import, strapped to the belts of the increasingly numerous Chinese tourists visiting Luang Prabang, famous for its now fragile serenity.
China has begun to re-establish ties with sparsely populated Laos, which has historically aligned with Indochina War ally Vietnam. The Chinese have made a number of gestures to the Lao people – they have built a highway linking Yunnan to Thailand, are working on a sports complex for the 2009 SEA Games, and are involved in a hydroelectric project in Vientiane province. But it’s not without a measure of self-interest. The new highway links China with the Thai market, eliminating the need to ship down the twisting and increasingly shallow Mekong, while the Chinese have been awarded a large and controversial land concession in Lao’s capital Vientiane in return for enabling Laos to host Southeast Asia’s largest sporting event.
In Luang Prabang, a Chinese-funded airport upgrade is planned to begin in early 2009, and NGOs and tourists alike are concerned that the roar of jet engines will be the new background to their riverside sunsets. According to an Asian Development Bank (ADB) report , Luang Prabang’s airport “is not compliant with ICAO [International Civil Aviation Organization] safety and security standards for current operations,” and the Laotian government is “interested in upgrading the runway… to support the operation of B737 and A320 aircraft.” The project is expected to boost tourism by 125 percent in the first three years, provide Lao laborers with income, compensate and resettle those on land required by the project, and include a gender and HIV/AIDS awareness program. Construction will be funded by China EXIM Bank at $63.2m, while the Laotian government has pledged $20.4m for the other programs, including resettlement.