Lao residents are voicing increasing annoyance at the appearance in the country of signboards at business places and building sites written only in Chinese, seeing them as a sign of their powerful northern neighbor’s growing economic influence in the impoverished one-party communist state.
The signs, sometimes with words written also in Lao but in smaller letters, have been set up at restaurants and in shopping malls in Chinese-run special economic zones and at construction sites along the route of a high-speed rail line being built to connect Laos with China, sources say.
Laos, with ambitions to become the “Battery of Southeast Asia” has drawn Chinese investment in hydropower dams and other big-ticket projects under Beijing’s $1.3 trillion Belt and Road Initiative to build infrastructure to support trade. China is Laos’ largest foreign investor and aid provider, and its second-largest trade partner, after Thailand.
Some signs drawing complaints bear the images of the Chinese national flag, one source in the Nga district of the northwestern province of Oudomxay told RFA’s Lao Service on June 25, adding that signs written only in Chinese have been set up on large billboards at work sites near his village.
“There should be signs written in the Lao language, too, but these are written only in Chinese,” the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“They have been set up where they can be seen by many Lao people passing by,” he said.
Signs put up at the locations of rail work in Oudomxay are required to be written in both Lao and Chinese, an official from the local office of the Department of Culture and Tourism told RFA.
“They still use both languages,” the official said, adding that she will send an official to Nga district anyway to investigate complaints.
Even on signs where both languages appear, the lettering given in Lao is much smaller, though, a villager in Luang Nam That province’s Luang Nam That district said, calling the dominant use of Chinese an attack on Lao culture.
“Normally, if you do business or [invest in] projects in Laos, you should use the Lao language on your signs. But here, they put up signs mostly in the Chinese language,” he said, adding that authorities in Bokeo province’s Ton Feung district had recently taken down signs written only in Chinese.
“I would like the authorities to do the same thing here,” he said.
‘We have no authority there’
Signs set up at shopping malls and other business ventures owned by Chinese companies in special economic zones are written almost always in Chinese, with Lao language sometimes used but always in lettering too small to be easily read, a villager in Luang Nam Tha’s Boten district said.
“We want the authorities to solve this problem, because Lao people can’t read Chinese signs,” he said.
Signs and other advertising set up in the special economic zones are the responsibility of the concessions’ mostly Chinese owners, though, an official from the Luang Nam Tha province said, adding, “We have gone down there from time to time to investigate complaints.”
“[The owners] print signs in their own country, and when they come to Laos they put them up on billboards right away without using the Lao language. The concession areas are their responsibility, though, and we have no authority there,” he said.
The Lao-China railway project—now 83 percent complete—is being touted as a boon for the landlocked nation of nearly 7 million people because it is expected to lower the cost of exports and consumer goods while boosting socioeconomic development.
The estimated U.S. $6 billion project, whose construction began in December 2016, is part of a longer rail line that will link China to mainland Southeast Asia under Chinese President Xi Jinping’s massive Belt and Road Initiative.
Early this year, the Lao Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare reported that there were a total of 16,000 rail workers in the country, including 11,500 Chinese with the remainder Lao.
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