Four years after hundreds of Laotians staged a protest demanding repayment of money they lost in a pyramid scheme, many of those who were defrauded say they have little hope of recovering their investments, even though government officials have begun selling off the firm’s assets to repay them.
More than 200,000 Laotians invested over U.S. $100 million in the PS Agriculture and Industry Promotion Import-Export Company of Laos. The company, registered as an agricultural firm in 2012 to produce purified drinking water and noodles, run a rice mill, and farm organic chickens and vegetables, promised to pay investors up to 4.8-percent interest a month if it generated a profit. Executives claimed it never reported a profit, however.
After the fraudulent scheme was uncovered and its executives were arrested, hundreds of investors staged a protest in the Lao capital Vientiane on Sept. 11, 2017, calling for the return of their deposits. More than 30,000 investors have filed statements of loss with the police.
On the fourth anniversary of the protest, one former investor, who requested anonymity as did others who spoke to RFA, said he had not heard anything about the return of their money.
“I don’t think we’ll get anything back because it’s been so quiet,” he said. “It might be because of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The investor, who lives in Vientiane, said he had invested 100 million kip (U.S. $10,260), but received no interest payments because the company claimed that it wasn’t making a profit.
Another investor in Luang Prabang province told RFA that he had filled out all the necessary forms in 2018 to get back his 8 million-kip investment, but hasn’t received anything yet.
“It’s been quiet since then. I’ve received nothing. I’ve lost all hope of getting my money back,” he said.
“I’m urging the authorities to find a resolution that will pay money back to all investors,” he said. “Why haven’t we been informed of any progress?”
An investor in Borikhamxay province who along with his daughter invested 10 million kip in the company in 2016, said the protest to demand the money’s return was in vain.
“Now, I’ve lost all hope of getting any money back,” he said. “I’m still waiting though; I don’t know what’s going on with the authorities at the upper levels. Are they still working on this?”
The Prime Minister’s Office has set up a special task force committee comprised of officials from the National Bank of Laos, Economic Police Department, Ministry of Industry and Commerce, and the Finance Ministry, to handle reimbursements, said an official in Vientiane’s Industry and Trade Department.
“The committee is working on collecting the assets of both the company and its executives, but I can’t tell you right now when it will be able to pay any money back to investors,” said the official who declined to be named in order to speak freely.
“The process is that the committee will sell the assets, then pay the money back,” he said, adding that the committee has already sold some of PS’s assets, including 100 hectares of land, equipment, cows and horses, and the personal property of the two co-presidents, Por Her and Souknaly Thepsimuang. Their personal assets included necklaces, bracelets, and cars.
The committee has not disclosed the value of the sold assets, however.
The Vientiane People’s Court sentenced Por and Souknaly to 15 years in jail each on Nov. 21, 2018, and fined them 2.8 billion kip for committing fraud, money laundering, campaigning against the state, causing social disorder, possessing weapons, and participating in in illegal wildlife and human organs trade.
The pair were detained in September 2017 after investors protested at the company’s headquarters in the capital.
The court also handed down prison sentences of from 2.5 to 10 years for the same crimes to 10 other PS executives and fined them between 5 million and 700 million kip.
Reported and translated by RFA’s Lao Service. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.