Leadership Change in Laos: A Shift Away From China?

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Leadership Change in Laos: A Shift Away From China?

The election of new leaders may signal a shift away from a heavy dependence on Beijing, among other things.

Leadership Change in Laos: A Shift Away From China?

A view of the Mekong River from Laos.

Credit: Flickr/Arian Zwegers

The leadership of Laos’ communist party and government has been replaced with a fresh slate, ending a five year-rule by Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong who was dogged by allegations of corruption, economic mismanagement and criticism that he was leaning too heavily on China.

With his government also punished by a wave of international publicity surrounding the 2012 disappearance of rural activist Sombath Somphone, the new administration will give the isolated country a fresh look as it assumes the high-profile chair of ASEAN for the current year.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has a scheduled stop in Vientiane this week, with U.S. President Barack Obama expected to land there later this year when Laos takes its once in 10-year turn as host of the Southeast Asian grouping.

At its latest five-yearly congress, Bounnhang Vorachith, 78, was named secretary-general of the party, replacing Choummaly Sayasone who stepped down alongside Thongsing and deputy prime minister Somsavat Lengsavad, in the highly secretive election of the 11-man politburo.

Acccording to a Radio Free Asia (RFA) report, the former minister of finance Phouphet Khamphounvong and the central bank governor Somphao Sayasith have been arrested for corruption.

Thongloun Sisoulith was expected to be named prime minister, while former central bank governor Pany Yathotu should become the highest ranked woman in the country and get the nod for vice president following their election.

Vietnam – which is also holding its five-year party congress – and China have historically vied for influence over the landlocked country, particularly in its northeast, which holds strategic value for its much bigger neighbors.

Analysts said the changes will give Vietnam an edge in its dealings with Laos. Hanoi has been angered by Thongsing’s plans for massive dam construction projects across the Mekong River and its tributaries which scientists say will impact badly on fish production and food security.

“That new slate at the top of the secretive one-party state are all viewed to be pro-Hanoi while those who are exiting have been allied with the Chinese,” RFA said in its dispatch.

Speculation is also rife that the Mekong River Commission (MRC) – which has lost the support of many international donors – will be forced to relocate out of Laos after claims the government had abused its base in Vientiane to push for the widely unpopular dam construction program.

Thongsing had raised eyebrows with his massive infrastructure projects plans, including expensive rail networks crisscrossing the country that he intended to fund through heavy borrowing from Beijing, despite his country’s relatively tiny gross domestic product of just $12 billion.

Whether Bounnhang and Thongloun can wind-back those projects to levels more acceptable to international standards remains to be seen. Analysts said democratic reforms were unlikely under their leadership.

Bounnhang was at the top of the list of the newly elected 77-member central committee. Thongloun was second and Pany third, indicating she could become a future leader. All 39 members who stood for re-election were picked.

Bounhang said the outcome of the congress was “successful as expected” and that all the elected members were qualified “as most of them had been tested on the battlefield during the struggle for national liberation.”

He was referring to the Laos civil war when Vietnamese-backed communists ended a six century reign by Laotians kings with the forced abdication of Sisavang Vatthana in 1975.

“We clearly see that the guidelines and policies that the 10th Congress has approved will continue to nurture and enhance the renovation guidelines, to be realized in line with the circumstances of our country,” he said according to official media.

Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt