Laos’ ruling communist party will hold its National Congress early next year, when new leaders and a new Politburo is elected, but there’s not much use in trying to predict the outcome. Information leaks in Hanoi like water from a sponge: in drops if untouched, but in globs if poked. From Vientiane, information leaks like from the proverbial stone.
Choummaly Sayasone, the former General Secretary of the party, was in power for ten years, and his predecessor, Khamtai Siphandone, for 14 years. One might possibly expect the incumbent, Bounnhang Vorachith, to be given another five-year term — he’s only served one, so far. That is, unless the party chooses to promote Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith. If not, Thongloun will be making his exit; prime ministers usually only get one term in office in Laos. Will it be good riddance?
Back in 2017, I wrote that Thongloun could have been the reforming prime minister that Laos needed. He certainly appeared to be in his first two years in office. He began what seemed to be a genuine anti-corruption campaign, closed down plantations and factories (even Chinese-owned ones) that were harmful to workers and the environment, and even began reforming certain wasteful parts of the economy. In his speeches and interviews, he presented a noticeably different personality from his communist counterparts; he was witty, self-deprecating and talkative.
But if there was a reform agenda (maybe I was overly optimistic) it has now disappeared. His government’s appalling responses to the numerous dam collapses over recent years make that obvious. It first feigned responsibility and accountability, then concocted lies, and then learned nothing by giving the all clear to other dams. His comment early in his term — “If Laos is to the battery of Asia, this might be overly ambitious” — at least held the possibility he would rethink his country’s dependence on energy exports. No rethink has happened.
Back in the 1980s, the buzzword of the communist party was chintanakan mai, or “new thinking.” It was supposed to sum up not just the market-orientated reforms of 1986, known as the New Economic Mechanism, but also a new way for society and politics. At a Central Committee plenum in November 1986, the party chairman and grandee Kaysone Phomvihane stated that “speaking in accordance with facts is new thinking.” He went on:
Trusting the people, speaking frankly and talking with people in accordance with facts is the new way of thinking as well as the new work style. The other way around, not trusting the people, distorting the facts, not revealing the difficulties and shortcomings, are the outdated way of thinking and the old way. Old thinking is subjective and impatient.
Of course, it was partly just a piece of communist PR. “New thinking,” wrote the academic Norihiko Yamada in a 2018 essay, “is not a specific reform policy but a slogan of socialist legitimation to promote the state-building process through” the New Economic Mechanism. (As Yamada notes, its use quickly disappeared in the 1990s as party leaders instead started to talk instead about “renovation” (kanpian paeng mai), the same term as Vietnam’s similar doi moi reforms.) But it was also an admission of something deeper.
Like any regime in a one-party state, the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP) has been experiencing gradual regime decay over time since the day it came to power, in 1975. At first, that process was stalled by Cold War expediencies. Then it was slowed by the adoption of market forces in 1986, which strengthened the economy and considerably reduced extreme poverty, though also maximized state corruption. Afterwards, it was braked by societal change, in the form of new technology and raising living standards, as well as the massive influx of Chinese money, which refashioned cities and town.
There are some who say that the resilience of communist regimes depends on constant reform and adaptation. That’s not quite right or fully complete. The lesson of the 1980s was that the Soviet Union tried gradual adaptation — through Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika — without the use of force. As the inherent contradictions of the systems became far too visible to the public, small protests on its peripheries, in East Germany and Czechoslovakia, weren’t checked by the military, so became full-scale revolts; and internal coups against Gorbachev were weak. The Soviets proved the revered French thinker Alexis de Toqueville to be correct: “The most dangerous moment for a bad government is when it begins to reform.” What the likes of Laos and Vietnam (though chiefly China) prove is that gradual reform and adaptation with the constant use of force does the trick. Think the invisible hand and the visible jackboot, at the same time.
How much can a decrepit communist regime reform and adapt, however? The post-1989 experiment of communist states is only just 30 years old, and no one can say for how much longer it will continue. Already we are seeing China crumbling at its peripheries, in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan, just like the Soviet Union did. As a much smaller state, Laos is unlikely to unravel at its edges. More likely, it will come apart from within.
So is Laos coming to the point where it can no longer reform and adapt? In some senses, it has become a near vassal state of China. Its economy is inflexibly reliant on power-production through its hydropower electric dams and loans from Beijing. The Laos-China railway will likely live up to predictions that it is an unwise investment, coming in a $7 billion, once it’s completed next year. The communist party has prevented even the slightest opening up of the public sphere, while politics remain as hermetic as ever.
Thongloun attempted an anti-corruption campaign in 2017, similar to the ones in Vietnam and China, but that quickly petered out. Moreover, nothing has come to pass about Laos becoming a new player in the international community; it exported just $260 million of goods to the EU in 2018, a paltry sum for a Southeast Asian state. No progress has been made on the issue of land rights, which only gets worse each year. Yes, the government is expanding the social security system with more healthcare provisions and such, but even that is laboring under the pressure of state debt and incompetent bureaucracy.
That is why next year’s National Congress and the events leading up to it will be so uneventful. Thongloun, at least, offered some promise as a modernizer and reformer. By any standard, he has failed to live up to that. And there’s little to indicate the communist party is moving to elect a more reformist leader than him. Instead, we are heading to the point of stasis in Laos, a period of no “new thinking,” when constant reform and adaptation grinds to a halt, and when there is no other relief in sight to stall the regime’s decay. That said, there is a good deal of “new thinking” in Lao society – proper private property rights, rule of law, free elections, autonomy of civil-society – but it runs up against the barricade of the party’s tyrannous rule.
So what’s left for the LPRP? At least one aspect we should be worried about is the increased use of force. That may be why the regime has been so keen of late to arrest and torture – and possibly “disappear” – activists who speak about the inherent contradictions of the system and demand “new thinking” in society. Welcome to a period of New Old Thinking.