Is Laos’ New Leader Really a Reformer?

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Is Laos’ New Leader Really a Reformer?

The answer is much more complicated than a surface glance might suggest.

Is Laos’ New Leader Really a Reformer?
Credit: Flickr/Samnang Danou

Thongloun Sisoulith is trying his best to appear modest. He never expected to become Prime Minister of Laos, he says, speaking to a Thai journalist some months ago, and was unprepared when the Central Committee elected him to the position at the last Party Congress, in January 2016. Dressed in an unassuming black suit with a thick, fuchsia tie, the 72-year-old embodies what he has sought to instill in the Communist Party’s rule. Indeed, modesty, the antipode and antidote of extravagance — Thongloun’s bête noire — has come to typify his first 12 months in power (he took charge in April 2016).

Thongloun, the Man

This includes false modesty. His claims of being unprepared to lead hardly befit someone who journeyed his ways through the ranks, having served as Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs; Minister of Labor and Social Welfare; President of the State Planning Committee; Minister of Foreign Affairs; and, between 2001 and 2016, Deputy Prime Minister. Such a trajectory does not take place by accident or without a destination in mind. Also, he must have actually felt somewhat aggrieved that his promotion took so long; in 2011, at the 9th Party Congress, he was expected to be made Prime Minister.

For a casual viewer, dull would be an apt adjective for that Thongloun interview. When asked what sort of country he wants Laos to be by the end of his tenure, he says that wants “solidarity throughout the country,” meaning “political security and societal peace,” which, judging from his predecessors, likely means control and order. His other dreams are lofty and airy, de riggeur of 21st-century autocrats. He wants Laotians to have a “pride and love for their country,” and “love the nature of this country.”

Mostly deferential and chummy throughout, the journalist Suthichai Yoon, who is the chairman of the Nation Multimedia Group, does however get Thongloun to open up on occasions. Indeed, the Prime Minister’s intentions are best caught on the edges of his remarks. He says, for example, that “we can have foreign investment but we must share the benefits,” adding: “There should be fairness.” This might sound banal. But read in the context of Lao politics, where predecessors are rarely criticized, it is arguably an admission that the benefits were not shared in the past. He also notes that some civil servants – police, nurses, teachers, and so forth – haven’t been paid on time in the past (saying this must change), a major critique of the Party that has led to much disaffection. In January, he issued an order to ministers and provincial governors to prioritize civil-servants’ pay.

Thongloun becomes most honest when pressed on specific issues. Take energy, for example. While Laos is building hydropower dams and coal-powered stations, he says, and wants to export energy to its neighbors, its own energy demands are growing, meaning that it can only export a portion. Following this, he’s asked: Is becoming the “Battery of Asia,” as Laos has been called, still a primary goal? “If Laos is to the battery of Asia,” Thongloun responds, “this might be overly ambitious.” He jokes later that Laos might become a battery, but only a “small battery.” Modesty, again.

Reform in the Making?

“Tardiness often robs us opportunity, and the dispatch of our forces.” So wrote the Italian éminence grise Niccolò Machiavelli. My own tardiness, I admit, was that I failed to acknowledge what was happening during my last visit to Laos, in September, after which I wrote a lengthy article in the Diplomat. In conversation with a number of Laotians at the time, I noticed a commonality: there was a good deal of adulation for the new Prime Minister. But it wasn’t until the last few months that intentions bore results.

On February 28, the regime held an open auction at the capital’s National Convention Centre, at which 14 luxury vehicles once used by the country’s leaders were sold off to private bidders. The Prime Minister’s BMW was reportedly sold for $160,000 to a businessman from Luang Prabang province; the businessman’s brother bought Vice President Phankham Viphavanh’s vehicle for $156,000.

It is believed this event, designed to do away with the regime’s conspicuous extravagance, was Thongloun’s idea. And it certainly went down well with the public. “I think that a lot of people are impressed,” I was recently told by a long-time expatriate, who, as with most sources in Laos, asked for anonymity. “It is sad that this did not include some of the former crowd who have retired and taken their toys.”

Such an ostentatious display of modesty, however, has been offered by previous administrations. But since coming to power, Thongloun has made major developments in three areas, which cannot be viewed as simply cosmetic.

First, his administration has made demonstrable efforts to tackle public corruption. A month before the last Party Congress, the former finance minister, Phouphet Khamphounvong, was arrested along with four ministry officials on corruption charges related to so-called “ghost” projects. In 2015, the State Inspection Authority (SIA), an internal government watchdog, claimed, probably conservatively, that state corruption cost Laos $123 million between 2012 and 2014. The SIA has recently launched investigations into dozens of officials, has almost finished a national audit of officials, and has overseen a considerable return to the treasury of illicit funds.

Second, it appears that the regime is going after the country’s major drug traffickers. Drug use is thought to be on the rise in Laos, and a good portion of black market wealth has been made through trafficking and dealing. Thongloun recently described the drug trade as “an obstacle to national social and economic development, and an important source of crime and corruption, not to mention a tremendous loss for drug victims and their families.”

In recent months, a handful of Laotian drug kingpins have been arrested, many of whom are thought to have close connections with the political class, and some to previous leaders. After Xaysana Keopimpha (dubbed in news reports as the “ASEAN drug lord”) was arrested in January at a Bangkok airport, the Thai police Major-General Sommai Kongwisaisuk was quoted as saying: “Lao authorities said to us that if we couldn’t arrest [Xaysana] here, they wouldn’t be able to do anything in Laos.” Indeed, photographs of Xaysana with the son and daughter-in-law of former Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong spread on social media, though the allegations of close connections were denied.

Xaysana’s arrest, however, is thought have come after months of work between Thai and Lao authorities. Moreover, it was followed swiftly by the arrest of Khonepasong Soukkaseum, whose cartel is thought to be larger than Xaysana’s, by the Lao police, as well as three other so-called kingpins.

Lastly, Thongloun, in his second month in office, ordered a ban on the export of timber, an immensely profitable gray industry, and one that has contributed to the environmental destruction of the land-locked nation. A recent report by the U.S.-based NGO Forest Trends said the ban now “appears to have had its intended effect.” Indeed, just 36,060 cubic meters raw logs found their way into Vietnam, the largest market, in 2016, compared to 321,718 cubic meters the year before. Sawn wood entering Vietnam also dropped: from 383,149 cubic meters in 2015 to 95,572 cubic meters in 2016. The report noted that the figures decreased significantly following May’s ban.

The Lao government is even considering a more interventionist approach to mining contracts, another environmentally destructive industry, China’s state news agency Xinhua reported in November. It quoted one National Assembly legislator as saying that the Thongloun was questioning whether to “halt… mining operations altogether.”

“It is very apparent that Thongloun is very much a new broom and he appears determined to turn the ship of state about in many ways, most especially in terms of corruption,” a source said.

“There seems to be a lot of support for him since he’s creating a more transparent atmosphere for discussion and generally setting a more progressive agenda,” Ian Baird, a Laos expert at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the United States, told me.

What’s (Really) New?

But little of what Thongloun is doing is original. Many of the policies and reforms have been attempted in the past (or at least promised) though mostly without success. What distinguishes him from his predecessors, however, is his understanding of why they failed, and the realization that failure is no longer an option. “It is as though he had been sitting and taking notes all of these years, just waiting for the opportunity to grab the reins and haul in the excesses,” a politically-knowledgeable source told me.

What allows for Thongloun’s distinction remains a matter for debate. Clearly, as noted earlier, his trajectory is befitting someone of his rank. Born in the province of Hua Phan in November 1945, and educated in the Soviet Union, his consanguineous political ties are owed to his father-in-law, Phoumi Vongvichit, a founding member of the Lao People’s Party and former acting president. This puts him within the Party’s powerful northern caucus (political control often clashes between the networks loyal to the southern or northern power-brokers). Moreover, Thongloun served in all the right posts. He was President of the State Planning Committee, as were several former premiers, and held the post of Deputy Prime Minister for almost 15 years.

But unlike most other leaders, he has experience outside of the claustrophobic world of Vientiane politics. This, in my humble opinion, is an important distinguishing factor. He served as Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs between 1987 and 1992, a five-year period in which he must have paid careful attention to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Later, in 2006, he was appointed Foreign Minister, a position he held until last year. Important, again, is the timing. The last ten years have seen Laos emerge from its hermetic status to take a more active role in regional politics, as overseen by Thongloun.

Laos’ foreign policy has typically been dominated by China and Vietnam. Indeed, for many pundits the only discernible difference among the country’s political class is whether they belong to the pro-China or pro-Vietnam factions. Thongloun, importantly, fits into neither of these camps (if they actually exist as clearly as some assert) and seems as comfortable in Hanoi as Beijing, and, more importantly, on the international stage.

At the United Nations, as Foreign Minister, he appeared knowledgeable about important global issues, from the two-state solution for Israel and Palestine and the Cuban embargo. He was the first senior official from Laos to visit the United States, in 2010, since the formation of the Communist state, and is thought to be the leading figure behind Vientiane’s attempt to form better relations with the West and the “international community.” Indeed, in a September 2016 address to the UN General Assembly, in New York, he stated that the country’s many problems require “continued support and assistance from the international community.”

Undoubtedly more outward-looking than his predecessors, this places Thongloun as an essential figure at a time when Laos can no longer turn away from globalization. It also, perhaps, has allowed him to cast a somewhat distant eye over Lao politics.

Its socialist system has never given even the appearance of being a dictatorship of the proletariat, as Engels proscribed, but, at least in its early years, purported to be a dictatorship for the proletariat (however the proletariat was defined). But by the time of the 10th Party Congress, in January 2016, the public perception, leading to some opprobrium, was that the political class had become corrupt and lavish and nepotistic and so far moved from the ordinary Laotian that policies were no longer made with the “people” in mind.

At the same time as inequality became acute between the political class and the ordinary people, the free-market reforms introduced in the late 1980s had given rise to conspicuous middle and upper classes. A short stay in Vientiane makes this abundantly clear. Indeed, since the “New Economic Mechanism” launched in 1986, this new capitalist class grew in parallel, and symbiotically, to the political class. Sometimes it made its money legally, and sometimes illegally. But what catches the eye is the dual inequality in Laos: a political class made corrupt and affluent through a closed-party system, and a capitalist class wealthy from the free-market. Autocracy met plutocracy, and the common Laotian was given the worst of worst of both worlds: untrammeled profiteering without democracy.

Though many things in Lao politics remain opaque, what is clear is that devoid of democracy and a civil society, the regime’s legitimacy depends on the economy, namely ensuring improved living standards. But rising social inequality, and the perception that the nomenklatura and connected businessmen had retained the country’s wealth for themselves, threatened the Party’s legitimacy.

All of this, Thongloun appears to understand. “We have been experiencing financial difficulties, and the majority of our people are poor,” Thongloun told local media in January. “If we live lives of luxury, then the gap between rich and poor will grow too large, and that is going to be a big problem.”

Thongloun, in a sense, seems keen reassert whom the dictatorship is for. And he must have realized that public anger swells around ill-gotten gains. It is no coincidence, then, that he has moved to tackle what most infuriates the common Laotian – government corruption, environmental destruction, and social inequality – even though this risks also infuriating Party doyens who have grown fat because of it.

But if Thongloun can be described as a reformist, it must be couched in terms of his aspiration. He is no iconoclast seeking to change Laos’ political system. In fact, his administration has been as resolute in suppressing free speech and dissent as previous ones, pushing ahead with vitally-important (for negative reasons) cybercrime legislation, which attempts to silence the present-day samizdat that is social media. His goal, in essence, is to save the Communist Party from itself. Only through purging the Party of its excesses can it avoid a confrontation with the people.

As I wrote in an article for the Diplomat in September, the Party’s underlying logic since coming to power is that it fulfills every need of the people. Thongloun probably knows this to be the lie it is, but must rationalize that the Party can at least dispel some antagonisms within society. To take a “moral” versus “material” view of how change comes about, he has sought to crush those who demand democracy and human rights for “moral” reasons, and quieten those have grown frustrated about the “material” conditions of the country.

In this fashion, Thongloun’s ideals have an affinity with the Party’s earliest leaders, rather than the more recent premiers who are thought to have led the Party astray. He understands that the political status quo can only be maintained through change. In doing so, he oscillates between a progressive and reactionary reformer; politically conservative, yet economically and geopolitically liberal. Complex and flinty, and occasionally contradictory, Thongloun is clearly a figure in a way that Lao politicians seldom are.