Shy Laos takes centre stage

Popular with backpackers, Laos is usually neglected by everyone else. Source: Flickr

So long neglected by the great powers, media and business, Laos has taken the chair of Asean for the year, giving a welcome opportunity to examine the repressive state.

Popular with backpackers but backward in almost all other respects, landlocked Laos looks to be under increasing scrutiny as an unlikely player in the South China Sea dispute as Hanoi, Washington and primarily Beijing try to win its support.

Soon its leadership, almost all men in their late 70s, will have to face the media at international summits and might be forced to offer more than their normal cryptic explanations of their policies.

Domestically, the Laos Communist Party has chosen its vice president, Bounnhang Vorachit, as its next leader last week, at the congress of the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party, which is held every five years.

It has selected a new central committee and politburo to run the country. Bounnhang, 78, is replacing Choummaly Sayasone, 79, as secretary-general and president.

Choummaly is stepping down after almost a decade in power.

Some observers think the changes signal a move away from Beijing and back towards Vietnam, a long-term ally, as Laos takes the Asean chair.

The tight-lipped, monolithic rule of the People’s Revolutionary Party has made political changes challenging to interpret since it took power in 1975 but politburo changes offer pointers to moves within the ruling elite.

Bounnhang, who was a Pathet Lao independence leader and prime minister, is an obvious choice in the one-party state. Observers were, however, surprised by the departure of Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong, 71, who had been in the politburo since 1991. Speculation links his exit to the recent arrests on corruption charges of Central Bank Governor Somphao Sayasith and ex-finance minister Phouphet Khamphounvong.

Deputy Prime Minister Somsavat Lengsavad, 70, apparently is not seeking re-election to the central committee, after a decade in the politburo. It has been noticed he had the strongest links to China in the government.

“China is using its economic interests to get political power” says Professor Ian Baird of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Politically, though, Laos remains much closer to Vietnam. Most of the country’s leaders studied or trained in Vietnam, including Bounnhang. They were already in governmental positions in the 1980s when there were strong enmities between Laos and China, who were then almost at war, with no trade or real relations.”

Somsavat has sealed many joint ventures with Beijing, using his fluent Mandarin, and was guiding through the Laos-China high-speed train project. Work started on the project at the end of last year.

The 427km train line is due to link Vientiane with China’s border at a cost in excess of US$6 billion.

The endless, painful, spine-jiggling bus journeys across Laotian hills over potholed roads may one day be consigned to history.

There has been talk of that other leaders were unhappy with the terms of Somsavat’s deal. It had “high-cost investment where he gave too much away as collateral for project loans with little or no pay-offs for ordinary Lao citizens”, Radio Free Asia reported.

The project has been controversial since it was unveiled in 2010 and is apparently unpopular across the hilly border in Vietnam, where relations with China are often under strain over the South China Sea dispute.

Ex-prime minister Bouasone Bouphavanh was allegedly removed from office in 2010 for prioritising relations with China over Vietnam. There was talk of a rail link with Vietnam but it did not materialise.

Beijing’s “rail diplomacy” is digging cuttings throughout Asean with work starting to link Jakarta with Bandung. Links are planned between Bangkok and Vientiane and to Cambodia. New Delhi is also looking to see if China’s high-speed rail technology could cut down Indian commutes. The challenge is whether the same results can be achieved in countries where dissent is less muzzled than in China. In China nothing stands in the way of the bulldozers’ progress and straight lines are guaranteed and swiftly created.

Baird continues: “What the Lao are doing now is trying to balance between the Vietnamese and Chinese. They want political support from Vietnam and financial support from China… The United States is also getting closer to Laos, but has relatively low investments in the country. Ultimately, I believe that Vietnam has more power than China in Laos.”

Beijing would have been irked by Vientiane’s vocal support last month for the American position over the South China Sea dispute. China is notoriously thin-skinned over the issue.

Thongsing told visiting US Secretary of State John Kerry that landlocked Laos “would help counter China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea”. In contrast, another small country with no direct interest in the dispute, Cambodia, has been vocal in its support for Beijing’s attempts to wrestle control of the sea’s many atolls.

As ever, we can only speculate about Laos. Its convivial politicians are normally courteous but are always unresponsive.

China’s official news agency Xinhua, not renowned as a bastion of truth, meanwhile reported that Bounnhang and Song Tao, representing China’s President Xi Jinping, met this week to say the new Laotian leader was “ready to join hands with China to further develop the relations between the two parties and two countries”.

More questions than answers surround the two Chinese nationals who were killed and another injured in what Associated Press reported was a bomb explosion on Sunday in central Laos. Neither repressive regime allowed its state mouthpieces to comment on the deaths and whether the two were the targets of the blast.

Vientiane tends to blame ethnic Hmong militants for attacks against government targets but members of the Chinese business community have a number of enemies in central and northern Laos. Rarely reported in the media, there have been numerous allegations of land seizures and environmental disasters related to China’s dealing in the rubber plantations and mining.

More details may come to light about the deaths but so much about Laos is left in the realm of speculation.

Laos, one of the world’s most bashful states, will no doubt be uneasy about this month’s summit in Sunnylands, California, which it is co-chairing with President Barack Obama.

How Laos’ staid, aged leaders handle the world stage will be a source of intrigue for many.