Laos Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith at the Asean Summit Retreat. Photo: AFP/Ye Aung Thu
Lao Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith at an Asean Summit meeting in a file photo. Photo: AFP/Ye Aung Thu

In line with its communist neighbors China and Vietnam, Laos has launched an anti-corruption campaign to purge the ruling Lao People’s Revolutionary Party of corrupt members. The exercise aims to restore public faith in the party’s governance after decades of fast growth that have enriched many cadres, but raised public questions about the distribution of the poor country’s newfound wealth.

Lao officials accused of financial misconduct have recently returned large sums of money to the national treasury, a state audit organization official recently told Radio Free Asia. The inspection official described the sums returned as a “huge amount of money,” though he declined to divulge the exact amount or name individual officials in the news report.

Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith, portrayed by some as a reformer, has cranked up a counter-corruption drive since assuming the appointed post last April. The 10th Congress of the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party held in January 2016 saw the retirement of several elderly party stalwarts, including General Secretary Choummaly Sayasone and Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong, to make way for the promotion of a new generation of cadres.

Thongsing’s five-year tenure as national leader was marred by corruption allegations and suggestions of economic mismanagement. His finance minister, Phouphet Khamphounvong, a former central bank governor, was arrested in December 2015 along with four senior ministry officials on corruption allegations related to the issuance of bonds to finance so-called “ghost” projects, including provincial roads, that were budgeted for but never built.

The State Inspection Authority (SIA), an internal government watchdog, recently released data reported in local media that showed millions of dollars worth of state funds had been embezzled by ministries and provincial offices in the past year.

In 2015, an SIA report presented to the National Assembly showed state corruption had cost the country more than 1 trillion kip (US$123 million) between 2012 and 2014.

The SIA said it had recently investigated 71 officials across the country and made 25 corruption-related arrests, though it did not say if the party members had been criminally convicted. As part of an SIA nationwide audit of officials’ assets, which is reportedly almost complete, 1,900 officials and central level civil servants and more than 140,000 working in provincial administrations have declared their private and public finances. Analysts believe that accounting could lead to more arrests and a deeper purge.

Thongloun, who served as deputy prime minister since 2001 and concurrently as minister of foreign affairs from 2006, has not been implicated in any of the scandals and is seen as a relatively clean set of hands in Laos’ notoriously corrupt and unaccountable context.

He is thought to have impressed party cadres by his pledges to introduce new measures to tackle rising poverty levels and expand the government’s anti-corruption efforts. Laos’ gross domestic product (GDP) per capita is less than US$2,000, one of the lowest levels in Asia.

US President Barack Obama (C) waves with India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi (L), Brunei's Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah (2nd L), Vietnam's Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc (2nd R) and Laos Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith (R) as they pose during a group photo for the 11th East Asia Summit, part of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit in Vientiane on September 8, 2016.Obama warned Beijing on September 8 it could not ignore a tribunal's ruling rejecting its sweeping claims to the South China Sea, driving tensions higher in a territorial row that threatens regional security. / AFP PHOTO / ROSLAN RAHMAN
US President Barack Obama with India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi (left), Brunei’s Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah (second left), Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc and Laos Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith (right). Photo: AFP /Roslan Rahman

Although hard to gauge in Laos’ highly censored media environment, Thongloun is viewed favorably by the general public, according to Ian Baird, a Laos expert at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the United States. “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,” Baird told Asia Times.

In May, Thongloun ordered a ban on the export of timber, a move aimed at ending the rampant logging that over the past two decades has decimated Laos’ once verdant landscape. (Laos is geographically the size of France, but has only 6.7 million people.) Some provincial officials have reportedly ignored his central commands, highlighting a growing disconnect between provincial and central party cadres that some say is compromising his anti-graft drive.

Thongloun has also sought to open Laos up to investment from countries other than China and Vietnam, the landlocked and underdeveloped country’s traditional communist allies.

At the Association of Southeast Asia Nation (Asean) summit hosted in Vientiane in September, Thongloun welcomed Barack Obama as the first sitting US president to ever visit Laos. That had raised speculation that the US would begin to trade and invest more in Laos, though under the new Donald Trump administration those prospects are less certain.

Laos Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong delivers his remarks during the closing ceremony of the 27th Association of Southeast Asian Nations ( ASEAN ) Summit in Kuala Lumpur on November 22, 2015. China came under renewed criticism over its rising profile in the South China Sea as it jostled with the United States for regional influence at the conclusion to a week of top-level diplomacy. AFP PHOTO / MANAN VATSYAYANA / AFP PHOTO / MANAN VATSYAYANA
Former Lao Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong’s administrations was marred by allegations of corruption. Photo: AFP/Manan Vatsyayana

Like his party predecessors, however, Thongloun has brooked no dissent, witnessed in a mounting crackdown on social media users advocating democratic change. Lao citizens have been denied democracy since the Communist Party took power in 1975, following a three decade civil war, and the one-party government has harshly repressed nearly all forms of expression and association ever since.

As with China and Vietnam, the party’s continued legitimacy depends on a growing economy and clean governance. The economy has expanded between 7% to 8% in recent years, albeit from a low base. Phuong Nguyen, associate fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Southeast Asia Program in Washington DC, said in a recent press interview, “As long the government continues to deliver economic growth, it can withstand dissent and continue to rule.”

With a rising cost of living and increasingly ostentatious displays of wealth by government officials and local administrators, the party can ill-afford rising corruption perceptions. Complaints of yawning inequality between the people and officialdom have circulated on social media, online ire that has perhaps in part fuelled Thongloun’s highly public anti-corruption drive.

It remains to be seen how long party members will support and tolerate Thongloun’s campaign, particularly if probes are launched into powerful party families, academic Baird said. If he pushes too hard, it could cause a backlash that jeopardizes his own position. If he goes too soft, Thongloun risks frustrating a general public that is increasingly sensitive to wealth disparities and has so far seemingly supported his initiatives and rule.

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