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International relations

Land-locked Laos on track for controversial China rail link

Work commences on long-planned railway project but broader benefits remain in question

Tunnel drilling underway on a mountain outside Luang Prabang -- one of 75 tunnels to be drilled for the railway. (Photo by Peter Janssen)

LUANG PRABANG, Laos -- Construction of a 414km railway line linking China to mainland Southeast Asia through Laos is underway in Phonesai village, about 30km north of Luang Prabang, the country's ancient former capital and modern-day tourism center. A workers' dormitory has been built under a banner in Laotian reading: "The People of Laos are Proud to Build the Railway with Friendship, Happiness, Security and Harmony." The glaring discrepancy here is that all the workers in the dormitory are Chinese.

A sign at a dormitory for railway workers extols the harmony and happiness of the project in Laotian -- but the workers here are all Chinese. (Photo by Peter Janssen)

Tunneling has begun on a nearby hill. Across the road, work has also commenced on a bridge spanning the Mekong River. Posters of Chinese-made high-speed trains and other projects festoon Highway No. 13, which leads to the Laos-China border. Down the road from Phonesai, at Donemai village, a market has been set up to cater to the Chinese work crews. Shopkeepers, many from Yunnan, southern China, speak Mandarin. Similar scenes are visible at Vang Vieng, a tourist site half-way between Luang Prabang and Vientiane, the capital.

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