With the selection of new national leaders and the arrests of some old ones, Laos appears to be cementing its ties to Vietnam as it is attempting to blunt Beijing’s push to exert more influence over the country.
The results of the election for the new party central committee are expected to be announced in Vientiane soon with Bounnhang Vorachit getting the nod for president and Thongloun Sisoulith getting tapped for prime minister. National Assembly chairwoman and former central bank governor Pany Yathotu could also get the nod for vice president.
Current President Choummaly Sayasone, Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong, and Deputy Prime Miniester Somsavat Lengsavad are expected to retire, opening the way for the changes.
That new slate at the top of the secretive one-party state are all viewed to be pro-Hanoi while those who are exiting have been allied with the Chinese.
“It is clear that after the regime of President Choumaly Sayasone and Deputy Prime Minister Somsavat Lengsavad there is no pro-Chinese group,” a retired Lao soldier with close to the Ministry of National Defense, told RFA’s Lao Service today.
“Before the 10th Party Congress, Vietnamese national leaders often visited and worked in Laos, and I have seen groups of Lao leaders work closely with their Vietnamese counterparts indicating that Vietnam -- who is a big brother to Laos -- wants to get involved in the election of the new party central committee because it wants to kick out the pro-Chinese leaders,” he added.
Indications of impatience
There are other indications that the current regime’s tilt toward Beijing is raising concerns among the country’s ruling elite.
In an indication that the out-going regime has been discredited, the former minister of finance Phouphet Khamphounvong and Somphao Phaysith, governor of the central bank, who have close ties to those leaders have been arrested for corruption. Somphao Phaysith was arrested today, RFA has learned, while Phouphet Khamphounvong was arrested in December.
The out-going regime is also shouldering the blame for Laos economic woes and the country’s rampant corruption, said an official with a civil society organization who spoke with RFA on condition of anonymity.
“For five years, under these three leaders the economic crisis has worsened so much that state employees do not get paid for two to three months,” the official said.
The three leaders work hand-in-hand to protect each others’ personal economic interest, the official explained.
“If Choummaly inspects Somsavat for giving a Chinese investor a land concession for an economic zone, then Choummaly gets involved in illegal logging,” he said. “Thongsing also has problems with conflicts of interest – getting his family road construction projects in Vientiane -- so how can he inspect others?”
Railway questions raised
The selection of a new slate of leaders also raises questions about the controversial high-speed Lao-China railway. Earlier this month Vientiane and Beijing agreed on the interest rate for a U.S. $480 million Chinese-backed loan to help build the U.S. $7 billion project. A ground-breaking ceremony was conducted in Vientiane on Jan. 2.
The railway forms part of a larger 3,000-kilometer regional rail link that will run from Kunming in southern China’s Yunnan province through Laos, Thailand and Malaysia to Singapore. While the rail line is expected to give the underdeveloped, landlocked nation an economic boost, questions have been raised about its costs.
“The question is: Will the Laos-China railway project continue going smooth or will it face barriers after Choummaly and Somsavat are kicked off?” the official said. “The future of this project might have uncertainty and anything can be changed, but who knows?”
Lao citizens expressed appear skeptical and doubt if the new group of leaders can make changes.
“I still hesitate to trust that the new leaders can resolve problems of economic crisis and corruption because the new leaders are under the same party – it is like old wine in the new bottle,” said one Vientiane resident. “I find it hard to believe that they will work for the people rather than the party.”
Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Ounkeo Souksavanh. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.