Graft Crackdown in Laos Must Aim Higher: State Official

laos-police-extortion-may-2015-620.jpg Traffic police allegedly extort money from a motorist in Xayaburi province’s Phieng district, May 11, 2015.
Photo courtesy of an RFA listener

A recent push by impoverished Laos to crack down on government corruption is limited in scope and has failed to target high-level bureaucrats, according to a state official, who urged authorities to better implement the country’s anti-graft legislation.

According to a report last week by the state-run Vientiane Times, authorities in northern Laos’ Houaphan province recently punished more than 90 officials for corrupt practices between 2005 and 2010, and convicted nine education officials earlier this year for embezzling tens of thousands of U.S. dollars.

On Monday, the Times reported that 57 officials had recently been fined for “inappropriate use of state property and land deals” in two districts of Vientiane province.

However, a state official, who spoke to RFA’s Lao Service on condition of anonymity, questioned the scope of the recent crackdown, suggesting it was not far-reaching enough.

“Why is it only officials from these provinces who are reportedly involved in corruption, when the problem occurs throughout the country,” the official asked.

“Those who were arrested are low-level officials, but the high-ranking officials are not being brought to justice. So far, no ministers have been charged for corruption.”

The official said that more needs to be done to ensure anti-graft laws are enforced in Laos.

“Laos has many laws—including anti-corruption and state audit laws, anti-corruption and anti-luxury decrees—but they are ignored and lack implementation,” he said.

According to the official, corruption is not only widely practiced by provincial bureaucrats, but also at the highest levels of the national government.

The official’s allegations echo recent concerns aired by Buakham Thipphavong, vice-chairwoman of the National Assembly’s (parliament’s) Economic, Planning and Finance Committee during a legislative session in December.

According to Buakham, corruption in Laos is largely responsible for the country’s routine inability to meet its annual budget.

“If we can freeze corruption, our salary payments to state employees could be made on time and we would also be able to pay pensions to retired officials, as other developed countries do,” she said at the time.

“The amount of money lost to corruption is clear and the root of the problem is not only low-level officials, but those at the higher level as well.”

Buakham said that while Laos has passed a state audit law, officials dare not use it against one another, and that personal income “becomes something swept under the carpet.”

“If the state law exists only on paper, but not in practice, the corrupt officials maintain support and are promoted to higher ranks,” she said.

Pervasive problem

According to a report presented to the National Assembly last year by head of the Government Inspection Authority Bounthong Chitmany, Laos suffered losses from corruption of more than 1 trillion kip (U.S. $123 million) between 2012 and 2014.

In addition, the country issued bonds worth several hundred billion kip (tens of millions of U.S. dollars) to firms which failed to carry out road construction in Oudamxay province, according to the Ministry of Finance, adding to recent losses.

Corruption among high-level officials in the one-party state of Laos is so widespread that it has deterred foreign investors, created problems with the country’s ability to enforce business contracts and regulation, and left many ordinary citizens frustrated and impoverished.

In 2014, Lao ranked 145 out of 175 countries on corruption in the nongovernmental organization Transparency International’s corruption perception index, which scores nations on how corrupt their public sectors are seen to be.

Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Ounkeo Souksavanh. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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