Lao Prime Minister Thongloun Sisolith has ordered the governor of the country’s northeastern Xieng Khouang province moved from his job to an obscure government post amid renewed efforts to rein in profiteering from the trade in illegal timber, Lao sources say.
Somkot Mangnomek was replaced by the deputy secretary-general of the ruling Party’s provincial committee in a hand-over ceremony at the province’s administrative headquarters on Feb. 15, Lao media said.
Official news sources did not report the reasons for Somkot’s dismissal, though a government official told RFA’s Lao Service next day that the former governor had been connected to illegal logging in his province.
“Governor Somkot Mangnomek was removed because, as governor back in 2015, he had authorized a private company to transport 13,000 cubic meters of lumber, timber, and logs from Xieng Khouang province to Vietnam,” RFA’s source, an official in the Government Inspection Authority, said on condition of anonymity.
“The shipment had not been approved by the State Audit Organization and was never declared to the government,” the source said.
Somkot had also ordered Xieng Khouang police to bulldoze a privately owned luxury restaurant in the town of Phonsavan, in the province’s Pek district, so that a bank could be built on the property, and in addition had provoked disputes with local residents over land sold in concessions to Chinese investors, RFA’s source said.
Last year, Lao authorities seized more than 1,000 cubic meters of timber illegally harvested in several districts of Xieng Khouang province. On Jan. 3, the confiscated wood was put up for sale at auction.
Another governor dismissed
Somkot’s transfer followed the dismissal last November of the governor of Attapeu province, whose wife was implicated in the transport to Vietnam of timber harvested illegally in their heavily deforested region.
In May 2017, Lao authorities seized a convoy of 27 trucks of logs owned by Seng Viyaketh, wife of Attapeu’s then-governor Nam Viyaketh, at the Phoukeua checkpoint on the border. Authorities determined that the timber was illegally obtained in Laos.
The Politburo issued an order early in November reassigning Nam to work with the country’s National Social and Scientific Council as part of a “reshuffle of high-ranking leaders … in accordance with job requirements for the new era.”
While Nam and his wife denied any connection to the trucks seized in May, an official source who inspects timber in the southern provinces of Laos told RFA that the governor’s dismissal was directly related to the incident, as well as “conflict of interest for his family” and embezzlement.
According to annual survey of corruption for 2017 by the watchdog group Transparency International, Laos ranks 135 out of 180 countries, down from 123 the previous year. “There is more corruption because government inspects only ‘small fish’ not ‘big fish,’” a senior Lao official told RFA.
However a Vientiane resident, speaking on condition of anonymity, said “It appears that corruption is down because there are inspections going on.”
Most timber illegally harvested in Laos is obtained through conversion forestry—clearing areas marked for the development of infrastructure projects such as hydropower dams, road building, and mining operations—which is used as an excuse for large-scale logging that otherwise would not be permitted under Lao law.
Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Max Avary. Written in English by Richard Finney.