Newly appointed leaders in Laos signal few changes ahead
By KOU YANG
The 10th Party Congress of the Lao People’s Revolution Party (Communist Party of Laos), which was held in Vientiane from Jan. 18-22, 2016, elected 11 members of the Politburo and 69 members of the Central Committee. This Congress also dropped Choumaly Sayasone, Somsavath Lengsavath, Thongsing Thammavong and Asang Laoly from the Politburo.
The Military Times, Associated Press and others have painted Choumaly Sayasone as pro-Chinese. Moreover, people in Laos and analyst alike label Somsavath Lengsavad, a Chinese descent and fluent in Chinese, as pro-Chinese. He is credited for bringing Chinese corporate investment to Laos as well as making it possible for other major projects, such as the launching of Laos’ first satellite and the railroad project from China to Laos.
Thongsing Thammavong and Asang Laoly are also known as more accommodation toward China. The 11 new members of the Politburo are listed below in an order of hierarchy: 1) Bounnhang Vorachith, 2) Thongloune Sisoulith, 3) Pany Yathotou, 4) Bounthong Chitmany, 5) Phankham Viphavanh, 6) Chansy Phosikham, 7) Saysomphone Phomvihanh, 8) Chansamone Chanyalath, 9) Khamphanh Phommathat, 10) Sinlavong Khouthphaythoune, and 11) Sonexay Siphandone. The new Politburo is reputed to be leaning toward Vietnam, and away from China.
On May 20, 2016, the National Assembly of Laos approved the appointment of Bounnhang Vorachith, the General Secretary of the Party, as President, Thongloun Sisoulith as Prime Minister, Pany Yathotou as President of the National Assembly. Other important cabinet members include Bounthong Chitmany as Deputy Prime Minister, Inspector and President of the Anti-Corruption Committee, Lt. Gen. Chanhsamone Chanyalath as Minister of Defense, and Saleumxay Kommasith as Minister of Foreign Affairs. These appointments completed the process of filling key posts of the political structure of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, which began with the 10th Party Congress held in Vientiane in January 2016. Like other Communist countries, the four most important posts in the Lao PDR political structure are: 1) General Secretary, 2) President, 3) Prime Minister, and 4) President of the National Assembly.
These above developments can be viewed from various perspectives. Although outsiders viewed the competition for power to be from members of the same political party, the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party, insiders saw it differently. In reality, followers of many different past and present leaders have secretly competed for political posts and power. The results from the 10th Party Congress, for example, appeared to make followers of Khamtay Siphadone, the former President of Lao People’s Democratic Republic, the winners, following by those in the circle of Kaysone Phomvihanh, the party founder and former President.
Khamtay’s son, Sonexay Siphandone is elevated to be the 11th member of the Politburo. Kaysone Phomvihan’s son, Saysomphone Phomvihanh, Kaysone Phomvihanh’s son, is also elected new member of the Politburo. On the other hand, it appears that no people from Souphanouvong’s circle have been appointed to be either member of the Politburo or Council of Government. Ethnically, the members of the new Politburo are diverse. For example, Pany Yathotou, the 3rd in the party hierarchy is Hmong, Bounthong Chitmany, the 4th member and Deputy Prime Minister, Inspector and President of the Anti-Corruption Committee, is Lamet, Phankham Viphavanh, the 5th member and Vice-President is Tai Dam, Chansamone Chanyalath, the 7th Member, and Minister of Defense is Khmu. There is one woman serving as member of the Politburo and two serving as cabinet members.
Laos is the buffer between its three bigger neighbors: China to the north, Thailand to the west, and Vietnam to the east. During the Secret War, North Vietnam and China provided military assistance, including troops and military advisors to the Communist Pathet Lao while the U.S. was using Thailand as its Air Force base to bomb North Vietnam and Laos, mainly the Xieng Khouang Plateau and the Ho Chi Minh Trails in Southern Laos. After the war, the government of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic allied itself with Vietnam, and both countries signed in 1977 a formal twenty-five years of Laos-Vietnam special friendship and cooperation. During the 1979 Chinese-Vietnamese War, Laos sided with Vietnam. In 1989, Laos and China restored full diplomatic relations; China has since then emerged into the picture in Laos, and the political, diplomatic and economic relations between Laos and China have grown over the years, making China the biggest investor in Laos.
Although Laos and Thailand share common religion and many aspects of their culture, they have a long history of being distrust of each other. A series of border conflicts between Laos and Thailand occurred between 1987 and 1988, which led to military confrontation at the Lao border town of Boten District in Sayaboury Province and Chat Trakan District in the Thai Province of Phitsanulok. Although the border war was brief, the casualties on both sides are estimated to be about 1,000 soldiers. In the end, Thailand asked for a ceasefire and bargained for peace.
The tug of war over Laos between China, Vietnam and Thailand, is both commercial and political. Currently, China, Thailand and Vietnam are in fierce competitions by investing heavily in Laos. Thailand has some 760 projects amounting to more than US$4.8 billion. Moreover, the Mekong Dam in Sayaboury is owned by CH. Karnchang, a Thai public company and the Hongsa Lignite Power Plant in Hongsa, Sayaboury, is co-owned by Thai and Lao companies, but most of its electricity goes to Thailand.
Investment from Vietnamese companies has reached nearly US$4.9 billion, second only after China. Chinese investment in Laos is estimated to be more than US$31.45 billion in 240 investments, mainly in hydropower; currently, Chinese investors involved in four of nine dam projects in the Mekong region inside Laos. Chinese companies have also committed to the building of the US$7.2 billion railroad linking Yunnan province to Vientiane, the capital of Laos, bypass Thailand onto Singapore. Once this speed rail is completed, it will change the whole landscape of Southeast Asia where Laos will no longer be a landlocked country; massive floods of Chinese migrants and tourists will roam the Luang Phrabang, Vientiane and other parts of Laos, Thailand and Singapore. The whole Southeast Asian region will likely become borderless.
Adding to the complication is the current situation in the South China Sea where China and Vietnam have become interlocked in a major international dispute with each country’s claim to the Island. China has succeeded with man-made landing strip on the Island where its fighter jet has landed and military anti-surface to air battery missiles has been installed. The dispute over the South China Sea Island is expected to draw more anger from China’s neighbors where it could potentially lead to war down the road. Laos has always claimed to be neutral, but its geography makes Laos’ neutrality more or less just a claim. The priority of Laos can be drawn from the three-day-visit to Vietnam in late April and then a visit to China in early May by the newly appointed President of Lao PDR. The new Party Politburo in Laos will soon have to take a stand on the issue as opposed to the Cambodian leaders who bowed to Beijing in their last hosting of the ASEAN Summit that no joint communiqué was issued in condemning China.
Laos will chair and host the next ASEAN Summit in September 2016, and Laos is likely to allow joint communiqué to condemn China’s aggression in the territorial dispute in South China Sea. U.S. President Barack Obama is scheduled to attend this coming ASEAN Summit and will be the first ever sitting U.S. President to visit Laos. It is expected that President Obama will announce more funds to the clearance of Unexploded Ordnances in Laos as well as other packets to work toward closing the war chapter between the U.S. and Laos. It is likely that the new leaders in Laos will be more receptive to receive assistance from the United States. Diplomatic relations between the two countries have not been totally broken after the war. In 1992, both countries restored full diplomatic relations at the ambassadorial level, and in December 2004, the U.S. granted its Normal Trade Relations (NTR) status to Laos, and the relationship between the two countries have gradually improved. Future relationship between Laos and the United States, however, depends on the results of next U.S. Presidential Election. Hillary Clinton has visited Laos in July 2012 as a sitting U.S. Secretary of State, and is more likely to work well with the newly instituted Government of Laos as well as other nations of ASEAN.
Laos also face with many internal issues, such as the recent killing of Chinese inside Laos, corruption, and economic disparity in particular the growing between the elites and the poor, who represent the majority of the people in Laos. According to The Diplomat, “more than a third of Laos’s population continues to live below the global poverty line of US$1.25 PPP a day in a society where most of the population remains dependent on subsistence agriculture.” Despite of having a fast economic growth during the last decade, Laos remains one of the poorest countries in Asia. Although Laos has passed many anti-corruption laws in recent years, the corruption in Laos continues to be widespread that Martin Stuart, a Senior Scholar of Laos, called it “The political culture of corruption.” According to Global Security.Org, Laos is rated 154 out of 178 countries on Transparency International’s corruption perception index. In 2014, the state-run daily Vientiane Times reported that more than 149.40 million U.S. dollars have been misappropriated from 2012 to 2014 through corruption. Radio Free Asia reported in early 2016 that the former Minister of Finance of Laos was arrested and charged with corruption.
The recent killings of Chinese tourists appear to signal a stern message to Beijing that the Chinese are not welcome in Laos. Beijing, on the other hand, is likely to continue pressing Laos for investigation of these killings, and for more protection for its citizens inside Laos.
What to expect? The new leaders in Laos are much younger than previous teams. It is optimistic hope that they will be more open-minded and willing to incorporate science, technology, innovation, and new ideas into the development of the country. Laos is likely to take stand against China, when it hosts the ASEAN Summit in September 2016. Pressure from China on Laos is likely to increase, when Laos leans toward Vietnam, an ally of the U.S., especially on matters related to the dispute over island in the South China Sea. The said dispute and regional security will like to force Laos to take side, and it is more likely that Laos will go with the majority of ASEAN, and possibly the United States to counter balance China’s influence in Laos and the region. Relationship between the two countries will be stronger, and more aid packets are likely to be offered to Laos, when U.S. President Barack Obama visits Laos in September. Politically, the more Laos undergoes changes, the more it remains the same. The Lao People’s Revolutionary Party with its 268,000 members will continue to be the only ruling party of the country that has a population of 6,911, 644 and very diverse ethnicities. With the median age of just little over 22 years old, the very young people of Laos are likely to expect more democracy, transparency, accountability, and less corruption. With an average GDP growth of 7 percent over the past decade, the young and diverse people of Laos are likely to demand equal share of the economic prosperity of the country.
Kou Yang is Professor Emeritus of California State University, Stanislaus. He is the author of Laos and Its Expatriates in the United States (2013).