A controversial Chinese casino kingpin with a large business network in Laos is looking to develop tourism facilities in remote areas of the Southeast Asian country, sources in Laos told RFA.
Zhou Wei, sanctioned as the leader of a “transnational criminal organization” by the U.S. Treasury, owns the Dok Ngiew Kham Group, and is co-owner of the Kings Romans International (HK) Co., Limited, which operates the Kings Romans Casino in Laos’ Golden Triangle SEZ. He is said to hold de facto control of the SEZ, which caters mainly to Chinese tourists.
Zhao visited southern Laos’ Saravan province on March 27 to meet with Gov. Phoxay Xayasone to discuss the possibility of developing an airport and investing in several agricultural and tourism development projects, offcials said.
The governor took him to see a large plot of land in Saravan’s Ta-Oey district, available for farming, raising livestock or building tourist attractions. Zhao saw pieces of land in Saravan’s Samoey district, which borders Vietnam to the east, where he likely plans to build a road.
Officials from Saravan province confirmed Zhao’s visit in comments to RFA’s Lao Service March 31.
“Mr. Zhao Wei met with the provincial governor then went to conduct a land survey in Samoy district… He’s looking to possibly invest in agricultural development,” said an official who requested anonymity to speak freely.
Another official told RFA that Zhao came with land surveyors in tow.
“They conducted a survey on a stretch of land near the Lao-Vietnamese border to plant commercial trees. They were just looking around, they don’t have a specific plan to do anything yet,” said the second official, who requested anonymity for professional reasons.
A farmer in Ta-Oey district told RFA that Chinese agricultural development projects are worrisome, for pollution and commercial reasons.
“The Chinese will use a lot of chemicals, and that’s harmful to the environment. The chemicals will also make their produce look better than ours and will bring down prices,” the farmer said.
Zhao’s company is currently engaged in a feasibility study on a similar project in northern Laos’ Xieng Khouang province. The company looked at a piece of land in Pek district near the Plain of Jars, a major archaeological landscape and UNESCO World Heritage Site consisting of thousands of large prehistoric stone containers scattered about the area.
“Zhao Wei visited here in August last year. He was looking for about 150 hectares of land for agricultural and tourist development that would include building hotels, raising cows and growing organic vegetables,” an official of the province’s Planning and Investment Department told RFA.
“In May last year, Zhao Wei signed a MoU with the Lao government that allowed him to do a feasibility study on the 150-hectare land to develop a tourist attraction complex, a traditional medicine factory and a golf course. The central government gave permission to him to do the feasibility study because he has experience and money, but there’s no concession agreement yet,” said the official.
The MoU states that the Dok Ngiew Kham Group will provide capital, technology and a market to local farmers to raise livestock and grow organic vegetables. The farmers will sell what they grow to Dok Ngiew Kham which will then export most of it to China.
Local academics are concerned that the group has plans to turn the Plain of Jars into an attraction for tourists taking a break from the casino.
“Chinese investments should be limited only to tourism because the Plain of Jars is one of Laos’ World Heritage Sites. It should be protected,” a Lao scholar told RFA. The jars are estimated to be 3,000 years old or older.
“The project must not include a casino. Casinos bring a lot of problems like crime. They should only be allowed near border areas like in Bokeo and Savannakhet provinces,” said the scholar.
Besides Saravan and Xieng Khouang, Zhao has explored a similar project in northeastern Laos’ Houaphanh province. In an August 2020 meeting with Houaphanh’s governor, Zhao said he wanted to build roads and tourist attractions in Houaphanh and invest in the area’s livestock industry.
Golden Triangle Airport
The Dok Ngiew Kham Group in 2017 cancelled a plan to build a U.S. $150 million international airport in the Golden Triangle SEZ. The group has reapplied for permission to pursue this plan, an RFA Lao Service source confirmed.
RFA reported in October 2020 that the company had begun construction on a new port on the Mekong River to serve the SEZ. Zhao and then Deputy Prime Minister Bounthong Chitmany were present at the port’s groundbreaking ceremony on Oct. 3.
In 2018, the U.S. Treasury Department declared the Zhao Wei network a “transnational criminal organization” (TCO) and imposed sanctions on Zhao and three other individuals and three companies across Laos, Thailand and Hong Kong.
“Based in Laos within the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone (GTSEZ), the Zhao Wei TCO exploits this region by engaging in drug trafficking, human trafficking, money laundering, bribery, and wildlife trafficking, much of which is facilitated through the Kings Romans Casino located within the GTSEZ,” said a Treasury Department statement.
Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Max Avary. Written in English by Eugene Whong.