Laos congress elects new leader

Party veteran and septuagenarian Bounnhang Vorachith becomes leader of the country

Southeast Asia Globe editorial
January 25, 2016
Laos congress elects new leader
Bounnhang Vorachith

Party veteran and septuagenarian Bounnhang Vorachith becomes leader of the country

The Lao Communist Party voted in 78-year-old party veteran Bounnhang Vorachith as its secretary general at the end of last week, making him the de facto leader of Laos. Bounnhang succeeds Choummaly Sayasone, who had been in the post for a decade.
The new leader of Laos, a one-party Communist state since 1975, has close ties to Vietnam, going back to his military training there as a young man.
His election, at last week’s Lao Communist Party congress, came just before a state visit from US secretary of state John Kerry and ahead of a visit to Laos by US president Barack Obama in May. Laos is currently chair of Asean, and Obama is due to attend the association’s summit during his visit.
The congress was also marked by the promotion of the minister of foreign affairs, Thongloun Sisoulith, to prime minister. VOA reported that diplomatic sources in Vientiane said Thongloun has long promoted the return of bilateral ties with the US.
Despite this, some experts believe it is unlikely the appointments would prompt any significant change in direction for Laos.
“This is a ‘more-of-the-same’ leadership that will make no move towards democratic reform and will maintain one-party rule – which makes fortunes for Lao leaders and their families,” said Martin Stuart-Fox, a Laos historian and retired Australian professor. “Bounnhang is a party loyalist, old-time revolutionary and wily politician, who is not going to change anything… No improvement can be expected in respect to human rights; no greater freedom of expression or association; no attempt to clean up corruption.”
In terms of foreign policy, Stuart-Fox predicted that the country would continue to find a middle ground in its relations with neighbours China and Vietnam, despite the former investing heavily in Laos in recent years as its biggest foreign investor. And this balancing act is all the more likely with Laos in the spotlight this year as Asean chair, which will see it playing host to world leaders on official visits.
Carl Thayer, a defence analyst at the University of New South Wales, told VOA: “Obama is going to visit the region in May, particularly Vietnam. He’s setting [things] up… where American diplomacy can go with Laos as [Asean] chair and try to keep it on an independent and neutral course rather than leaning toward China.”
However, not all agree with this assessment. Paul Chambers, director of research at Chiang Mai University’s Institute of Southeast Asian Affairs, said that Bounnhang is a “stopgap secretary general”, particularly given his age, and represents part of a faction intent on keeping Laos orientated towards Vietnam. Given that the secretary general “represents Choummaly’s faction within the Lao leadership”, his appointment will serve to sustain the outgoing leader’s influence after he steps down.
In terms of the country’s future direction, Chambers believes all eyes should be on Minister of Defence Sengnouan Xayalat and Deputy Minister of Defence Chansamone Chanyalat, who also ascended to senior party positions.
“Each is supported by Choummaly. Each is from his faction. Each could successively become Lao president,” Chambers said. “In all, a pro-Vietnamese Lao Communist Party, which is dominated by the Lao military, specifically Choummaly, is likely to continue lording over the political leadership in Laos.”
Also during the congress, the party’s 10th since coming to power, delegates set a target of 7.5% economic growth per annum in its plan for the next five years.
This story was updated on January 26, 2016

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