Laos’ former deputy prime minister Somsavat Lengsavad has been ordained a Buddhist monk at Phonphao temple in his hometown Luang Prabang in the northern part of the country, sources told RFA.
Somsavat, an ethnic Chinese, entered the order on Sunday to study Theravada Buddhist teachings at the temple which sits on a hill southeast of the city across the Nam Khan River, they said.
Of the two main types of Buddhism, Theravada is more conservative than Mahayana Buddhism, and is practiced predominantly Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand, and Sri Lanka.
“The reason he became an ordained monk is because he wants to attain mental tranquility for the rest of his life following his retirement from politics,” said a source in Luang Prabang who requested anonymity.
Somsavat originally decided that he would become a monk at the age of 71 in central Laos’ Savannakhet province after he failed to apply for membership in the country’s Politburo earlier this year during his third term of office, according to a source close to Somsavat’s former subordinates.
But Somsavat reconsidered and decided to pursue monkhood in his hometown, said the source who declined to be named.
“When he was a deputy prime minister, he was active in attending religious rites in temples and [financially] supported a monk in one temple,” said a retired soldier familiar with the country’s top politicians.
“Soon after he retired, I heard from a person close to him that he would be ordained,” he said.
The source in Luang Prabang told RFA that Somsavat would remain a monk at first for seven days, but would consider a longer time frame depending on the state of his health.
“If his health is OK, he will stay longer,” he said.
Removed from office
Somsavat became foreign minister in 1993 and served until June 8, 2006, when he was replaced by Thongloun Sisoulith, who became prime minister in April 2016.
Earlier this year, the country’s 10th Party Congress removed Somsavat from his position.
The congress also removed former president Choummaly Sayasone as general secretary of the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party, replacing him with former vice president Bounnhang Vorachith.
Both Somsavat and Choummaly were involved in granting large economic concessions to Chinese companies, many of which are state-owned, during the past 10 years.
The concessions raised concerns among the country’s ruling elite and citizenry that the regime was tilting too far toward Beijing and away from neighboring Vietnam, with which Laos has a special relationship based on their shared wartime history and communist alignment.
Somsavat had been overseeing a U.S. $7 billion Lao-China railway project, which included a U.S. $480 million loan from China that Laos plans to back with five of its potash mines.
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. It will transport both goods and passengers through the region and is expected to give the underdeveloped, landlocked nation a much-needed economic boost.
“It is clear that after the regime of President Choumaly Sayasone and Deputy Prime Minister Somsavat Lengsavad there is no pro-Chinese group,” the retired Lao soldier with close ties to the Ministry of National Defense told RFA’s Lao Service in January.
Critics of the former leaders also blamed their regime for the country’s economic woes and rampant corruption, an official at a civil society organization told RFA in January after the congress got under way.
The country’s current leaders at the top of the secretive one-party state are all viewed to be pro-Hanoi.
It is not unusual for former leaders in predominantly Buddhist Southeast Asian countries to join a monastery after they step down from politics to gain merit or seek atonement for any wrongdoings.
Thein Sein, who served as Myanmar’s president for five years, also became a monk after he left office at the end of March.
Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Ounkeo Souksavanh. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.