New Prime Minister Looks For Help to Upgrade Laos

But corruption and human rights issues still threaten to hold the nation back.

Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith (R) when he was foreign minister meets with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Jan. 25, 2016.

Laos’ new prime minister wants to give the country an upgrade, telling the national assembly that the nation needs to leave the ranks of least-developed nations.

Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith in an April 20 speech urged the national assembly and Lao local governments to give the new government support as it “aims to upgrade the country from least-developed status by addressing the poverty of the people with substantive results that enrich the nation.”

While Thongloun wants to lift Laos out of the U.N.’s list of least developed countries, some of the nation’s citizens and human rights experts don’t hold out much hope.

Corruption and human rights

To begin to move Laos up the international ladder, the government first must address the rampant corruption that saps confidence in the nation, local residents told RFA’s Lao Service. Transparency International ranks Laos as the 139th most corrupt country out of 168 nations.

“I expect the new cabinet will make an effort to address corruption,” said a Vientiane resident, who spoke to RFA on condition of anonymity.  “However, I do not know how the new government will manage it, and I don’t have confidence the government can do it at all.”

Another resident of the Lao capital was even more critical, telling RFA that the new leaders should “not get more new luxurious cars and more new houses because they are rich enough.”

Phil Robertson, Human Rights Watch Asia deputy director, told RFA that he doesn’t see the Lao government doing what it needs to do to improve its human rights record.

“Laos continues to be to be of the most rights-repressive governments in Southeast Asia,” he said. “I have no confidence that there will be any changes on Lao government policy on human rights as a result of there being a new president or a new prime minister.”

Roberts said he was not alone in his opinion. The ASEAN People’s Forum decided against holding its annual convention in Laos because the civil society organizations that make up the group were concerned for the safety of the participants. Laos is the 2016 chair of the ten-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

“Look at the decision of ASEAN People’s Forum to not hold their annual meeting in Laos,” Roberts said. “It’s because they could not receive the guarantees from the Lao government that people who join the ASEAN People’s Forum meeting from Laos would be protected and would not face retaliation.”

Sombath Somphone

The forced disappearance more than three years ago of Lao development specialist Sombath Somphone serves as a cautionary tale.

Sombath went missing on Dec. 15, 2012, when police stopped him in his vehicle at a checkpoint in Vientiane. He was then transferred to another vehicle, according to police surveillance video, and has not been heard from since.

Rights groups suspect that Lao officials were involved in or are aware of the abduction of Sombath, who received the 2005 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership—Asia’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize—for his work in the fields of education and development.

Lao officials have yet to state a reason for his disappearance or make any progress in the case, which has become a major headache for the Vientiane government, drawing criticism from European and U.S. development partners and aid donors and attention from the United Nations.

“Many people believe Sombath Somphone faced [retaliation] as a result of his participation in the Asia-Europe People’s Forum three years ago,” Robertson said. “Of course Sombath Sompon has been disappeared by the government of Laos, and the government of Laos refuses to reveal what they’ve done to him.”

Thongloun avoided the sticky issues of corruption and human rights when he addressed the national assembly, only appealing to their patriotism while asking for their cooperation.

“Standing in front of the national flag and national assembly on this important occasion, I swear and am committed to raising the revolutionary spirit in order to implement our duties under the constitution and our laws, and to make my high efforts in performing the mission with high commitment and honesty, to dedicate myself to jointly work with the party and state at all levels to implement the resolutions of the 10th Party Congress and National Assembly’s 8th Legislature successfully,” he said.

Reported by RFA's Lao Service. Translated by Ounkeo Souksavanh. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.