01/29/2011, 00.00
LAOS - CHINA
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Chinese casino on the Mekong: fears development front for money laundering

A Chinese firm commits billions of dollars to create a modern tourist centre in the former Golden Triangle. Projects for an airport and railway for express trains. But meanwhile a casino was built. Experts suspect a cover to launder illegal money.

Vientiane (AsiaNews / Agencies) - The communist government of Laos has granted to the Chinese firm King Romans Group 10 thousand hectares for 99 years in the province of Boke, to create a modern tourist resort. Meanwhile, a Chinese style casino has been built partly because the area is near the borders of Thailand and Myanmar, as well as China. But experts have voiced doubts that it is being used to launder 'dirty' money.

The project approved in April 2007 aims to transform the Golden Triangle, once the epicentre of the heroin trade into a great resort, with hotels, shopping centres, golf course, karaoke rooms, gyms, massage parlours, swimming pools, as well as medical centres, eco-tourism initiatives, breeding studs and even an international airport.

Instead a casino has been built on the 3 thousand hectares of the Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in Tonphueng, which are tax-exempt.  Players come from Thailand or from the Mekong River from Jinghong in Yunnan province, China. Everything here is Chinese, the language, food and currency, 4,500 people work there, of which only 500 Laotians.

Chinese Zhao Wei, the courteous and smiling president of the KRG and SEZ, told the South China Morning Post that they were spending millions of dollars in infrastructure, among other things, to renovate the river port and build a road up to 30 kilometres to the regional capital of Ban Houei Xav. So far been 3 billion yuan (about 455 million dollars) have been invested and the KRG is planning to invest a further 2.25 billion dollars by 2020. The entire national budget of Laos in 2009 was estimated at 1.13 billion dollars.

Zhao explains that the KRG also ensures the safety of SEZ, through its own private security guards. A portion of profits goes to the Laotian government. He emphasises that his group has donated millions of dollars for schools in Myanmar and Laos.

There are also plans for the construction of a city of 200 thousand people, Kapok City, which will be the 2nd biggest city in Laos after Vientiane. There is also a project to build a fast train line from Chinese Kunming to Bangkok via Laos.

But experts point out that the origins of the non-governmental private funds invested by KRG are not clear,. They say that Zhao is connected with the casinos of Mong La, in the Shan area of Myanmar, which many believe belong to the former drug baron Minxian Lin: casinos established near the border with Yunnan province of China, fell into disgrace after the Chinese authorities ban, concerned about the heavy losses suffered by their officials . Tonphueng is not very far from Mong La.

Thai entrepreneur Pattana Sittisombat, committed to economic cooperation between Thailand, Laos and Yuannan, said he was "very concerned about the possibility of illicit funds being used in the project and that this would be used to launder dirty money".

UN sources also maintain the risk of this is high. Zhao rejects all accusations.

The Laotian Foreign Minister Kenthong Nuanthasing explains that the government controls the project, but added he had "no information about Zhao Wei."

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