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Laos’s Chinese Gamble (Page 3 of 3)

It’s only a short trip from Mongla across the Mekong to the casino complex in Ton Phueng. Already, there’s a fleet of SUVs and a stretch limousine parked outside. Yet Dokngiewkham’s website, for one, gives no clue at all as to the identity of the main investors in this lavish project.

Chao Wei, the chairman of the SEZ management committee, who is said to have good connections in Macau, is keeping his financial backers a close secret. Is Mongla kingpin Lin Ming Xian, known to frequent the Ton Pheung casino, among the investors? No one will say.

Thai businessman Pattana Sittisombat, president of the Committee for the Economic Quadrangle and a key figure in economic cooperation between northern Thailand, Laos and Yunnan Province, says he’s worried about where all the money is coming from.

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‘I’m absolutely concerned about the possibility that illicit funds could be attracted to this project, and that it could provide opportunities for money laundering,’ he says.

Abbas, though, is dismissive of such talk. ‘I can offer reassurances that our casino doesn’t tolerate any illegal activities or money-laundering.’ Arguing that the region’s opium heydays of the 1960s through 1990s are a thing of the past, Abbas adds: ‘It’s part of our project to be a Golden Triangle theme park.’

While Afghanistan has long overtaken Burma as the world’s largest source of opium cultivation and heroin production, the Burmese narcotics trade has recently seen a resurgence. Indeed, although Special Region No. 4 has supposedly abandoned narcotics, the dominant military force in this remote region of northern Burma is still the UWSA, one of the world’s  major drug-trafficking militias, which operates in the adjoining Shan State region No. 2.  

Laotian people are already victims of the rampant smuggling of ‘Ya Ba’ (the local term for amphetamines), which are manufactured in small laboratories just across the Mekong by USWA forces. With this Chinese enclave effectively operating outside the sovereignty of the host country and shrouded in mystery with its unknown cash flows, hidden backers and secret investment partners, unrest among ordinary Lao seems bound to escalate.

Asked who he thought was in control of the complex, one villager living just outside the construction zone pointed in the direction of the casino. ‘Over there, it’s no more Lao,’ he said simply. ‘That’s China.’

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