When Lao President Choummaly Sayasone dismissed Germany-based democracy activist Bounthone Chanthalavong-Wiese as someone who “just makes money” from donors, he probably didn’t expect the physician to turn the question back at his luxury mansion and fleet of cars.
In remarks last month to senior officials in the one-party state, Choummaly said that the president of the Alliance for Democracy in Laos “now runs a [anti-government] campaign in a western country – Germany -- which propagates that she will get this and that for Laos.”
“Recently I was in Paris and I talked to Lao people there and heard that Ms Bounthone just makes money (from her democracy campaign), which does not mean she will get the country back,” he quipped, and warned the Lao officials to reject criticism from overseas.
Four days later after the president’s Nov. 30 speech, Chanthalavong-Wiese issued a tart response during a speech in Geneva, where Lao expatriates were protesting the 40th anniversary of the communist takeover of the former French colony and ancient monarchy.
“The President should not accuse me, a Lao descendant with 100 percent patriotism, honesty and fairness to our nation. At the age of 51, I have fought for 28 years, and I have graduated from medical school,” she told the gathering.
“With a salary of 5,000-6,000 Euros per month, I am now self-sufficient in my life and I do not need to use clean money donated by the Lao people to support myself,” said the activist.
“I want to ask where Mr Choummaly Sayasone gets a salary that allows him to build a big and luxurious palace of a house. You, your wife, children and grandchildren all drive luxurious cars, so where do you get the money?”
Complaints about corruption
Corruption is a sore spot among ordinary people in Laos, a poor country where the opulent lives of top communist leaders is widely talked about on social media.
In January, a resident of the Lao capital Vientiane complained to RFA’s Lao Service that Choummaly’s house in Thatluang village of the capital’s Saysetha district includes a 5 billion kip (U.S. $615,000) garden.
He could not provide the price of the president’s house, which was being built by the Phonesack Group, a contractor with a close relationship with Choummaly’s family, and which is involved in logging, mining and other development projects in Laos.
The president, who is 79 and has ruled Laos since 2006, is also widely known to have another big house in Nongteang village, which is 20 km (12b miles) north of Vientiane.
In another case, Choummaly took over the land of a missile camp in Khamhoung village in Vientiane’s Saysetha district, ordering the camp to resettle in a village some 30 km (18 miles) south of the capital, a senior military officer told RFA.
The anti-corruption watchdog group Transparency International ranks Laos 145 out of 175 nations in its annual perception of corruption index.
Callers to RFA Lao Service’s “Talk of the News” call-in show raised the spat between the president and the exiled activist on Dec. 6.
One man, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Choummaly may have blundered by attacking Chanthalavong-Wiese in a way “which credits her and raises her profile so more people will know her.”
“I think the president should not talk like this, because if Ms Bounthone asks him in return where the president gets the money to build the houses, he cannot answer,” he said.
“What the president says will damage himself, because now people in Laos have doubts and question why the president has gotten so rich,” the caller added.
Reported and translated by Ounkeo Souksavanh for RFA’s Lao Service. Written in English by Paul Eckert.