Laos’ Ministry of Public Works and Transport has informed state inspectors at their annual meeting that its investigation unit found that hundreds of its employees engaged in corruption in 2018.
Of the 1,002 cases that were uncovered, about 850 workers were disciplined and 55 were prosecuted on criminal charges, according to a copy of the ministry's report obtained by RFA’s Lao Service. The remaining employees are still under investigation.
Most of the corruption involved infrastructure development projects such as road construction and repairs throughout the country, it said.
Work on some projects that received funding was not done properly or was left unfinished, while other projects had not been started or officials deliberately overestimated costs and pocketed the extra kip, the report said.
“Most roads are not complete or are half-complete, and some have been completed, but they are not in good condition,” a local transportation official in eastern Laos’ Houaphanh province told RFA’s Lao Service.
“Some projects have not even begun at all, but they have already received money from the government,” said the official who declined to be named out of fear of being fired for speaking to the media.
Many projects have not been accounted for, though they have been allocated funds without approval by the country’s National Assembly, he added.
Among these projects are three road construction and repair projects in Houaphon’s Xam Tai district in which corrupt officials split among themselves money allocated for the work, the official said.
“They began doing the work in 2015, and it’s not finished yet,” he said. “And other road repair projects have been left unfinished as well, so we don’t know whether [the government] is going to allocate more of the budget to repair them or not. The [transportation] ministry hasn’t said anything.”
“It’s going too slowly, and they never finish,” he said, adding that contractors have not adhered to the terms of their contract with the state for the road-building and repair work.
The three construction and repair jobs on thoroughfares from Vieng Xay district to Xam Tai district, from Xam Tai district to the Tang Hua border with Vietnam, and from Xam Tai district to the Hoang A border with Vietnam were scheduled for completion by 2018, but they remain unfinished on account of a lack of funding, the official said.
Another job in Phon Thong district, Luang Prabang province, where workers are fixing up a 107-kilometer (66-mile) road from Luang Prabang to the Vietnamese border, has been underway since 2016, but the work is now being suspended on account of lack of progress, said a district transportation official who declined to be named.
“We don’t know what’s going on,” he told RFA, adding that district officials have contacted the provincial and central governments as well as the Ministry of Public Works and Transport for updates, but have received no response.
“They [central government officials] came down in 2018, but nothing has happened since,” he said. “Then the road repairs were put on hold.”
“It’s difficult to travel on those unrepaired roads right now,” he added. “Especially during the rainy season, small cars and buses cannot drive along it.”
The ministry’s report said that corruption in 2018 cost the government 846.44 billion kip, (U.S. $97.7 million).
It also said that it was able to get back some of money during its investigations, but did not state how much.
A widespread, long-term problem
Rampant corruption has also been rife in other Lao government ministries as well as in provincial and municipal governments in the past year.
In one high-profile case in September 2018, the Ministry of Finance fired eight high-ranking officials, including the director of the budget department and the general director of the ministry, for their involvement in "ghost projects," schemes in which they pocketed government money for nonexistent or overlapping contract work.
In that case, the finance minister did not specify which ghost projects the fired officials were involved in, but in 2014, another ministry employee told RFA that the eight high-ranking officials were involved in a scheme to build a U.S. $10-million infrastructure project that included an access road to a new stadium in northwestern Laos’ Oudomxay province.
Also last year, 10 officials in Savannakhet province were charged with corruption, with some receiving jail terms, said a source from the province who requested anonymity out of fear of retribution.
And this March 24, Vientiane municipality fired or disciplined seven officials for embezzling state funds, an official from the city’s finance and tax department told RFA.
Contractors and corrupt officials inflated the actual costs of 285 state projects last year to the tune of 4.5 billion kip (U.S. $517 million) mostly for infrastructure development projects in the provinces of Luang Nam Tha, Oudomxay, Luang Prabang, Hua Phanh, Xieng Khouang, Borikhamxay, Savannakhet, Champassak, Attapeu, and Vientiane, said an official in Savannakhet province who declined to give his name out of fear of retribution.
An investigation in Hua Phanh province alone found that corruption by 970 state employees added up to 104 billion kip (U.S. $12 million), a provincial official who declined to be name out of fear of retribution told RFA on March 21.
Corruption has been a widespread and long-term problem in the developing country because of Laos’ weak laws and lack of enforcement by authorities
Transparency International, a Berlin-based global anticorruption coalition, ranked Laos 132 among 180 countries on its Corruption Perceptions Index for 2018 and gave the country a score of 29 on a scale in which 0 is highly corrupt and 100 is very clean.
The group said corruption remained endemic among most of the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), of which Laos is a member state.
Corruption exists at every level of government in Laos and is difficult to uproot because it has become part of the country’s culture, a source familiar with corruption in Laos told RFA.
Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Sidney Khotpanya. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.