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The new government endorsed on 8 June as the first act of the recently elected Lao National Assembly introduces 15 new faces in a ministerial line-up of 28. Mr Bouasone Bouphavanh, previously one of four deputy prime ministers, was elevated to prime minister, replacing Col. Bounnyang Vorachit who becomes state vice president. Deputy prime minister Thongloun Sisoulit takes over foreign affairs from his long-serving predecessor, Somsavat Lengasavat, who continues as a deputy prime minister and as 'standing member to the government'. The two other deputy prime ministers are generals - Asang Laoly, in charge of the state's control and inspection apparatus, and Defence Minister Douangchai Pichit. The prime minister and all four deputy prime ministers are members of the Political Bureau of the ruling Lao People's Revolutionary Party. Indeed 19 out of the 28 ministers are members of the Party Central Committee.
The only changes in the structure of government are that the ministries of commerce and industry and handicrafts have been combined (as before) into a single Ministry of Industry and Commerce, while a new Ministry of Energy and Mining has been created to oversee the increasing number of hydropower and mining projects in Laos. Both have new ministers (Dr Nam Vinyaket and Dr Borsaikham Vongdara, respectively). For the first time two women have been allotted full ministerial positions (Mrs Onchanh Thammavong as Minister of Labour and Social Welfare, and Mrs Bounpheng Mounphosay as a minister in the prime minister's office in charge of the Public Administration and Civil Service Authority.)
Mr Chansy Phosikham remains minister of finance; Mr Soulivong Daravong has been promoted from minister of commerce to take charge of the Committee for Planning and Investment; and there is a new governor of the Central Bank (Mr Phouphet Khamphounvong). Several new ministers were deputy ministers in the former government, and have been promoted to replace retiring ministers.
Taken in conjunction with the relatively minor changes to the Politburo announced at the 8th Party Congress in March, which saw only one member (President Khamtai Siphandone) retire and two new members appointed (Somsavat Lengasavat and Mrs Pany Yathothu), the government reshuffle confirms that no significant changes in policy can be expected. While Mr Bouasone and Mr Thongloun represent a younger generation, aging former military officers still control the Party. Moreover Mr Bouasone is a protégé of outgoing president Khamtai, as is the new state and Party president General Choummali Sayasone, while Mr Thongloun is the son-in-law of former Politburo member Phoumi Vongvichit. Both are long-serving Party members, and neither is likely to press for any kind of democratic reforms.
The new prime minister has promised to press ahead with the 6th (five-year) National Socio-Economic Development Plan (2006-2010) that was endorsed by the 8th Party Congress, and 'actively and seriously' to do something about bureaucratic inefficiency and corruption. The goal is to more than double per capita income to US$800 by 2010, though this is unlikely to be met. Reading between the lines, the new government, while it has introduced a number of new faces, intends to continue existing policies. In doing so, it will place political stability ahead of economic reform which, while it is likely to create a climate conducive to foreign investment, will do little to eradicate poverty in the rural areas, or to bridge the growing disparities in wealth.
The only positive sign is that both in the Party Central Committee and in the government, several new members represent a younger generation of better-educated technicians who are working their way up the Party hierarchy to positions of power. Among them, interestingly, are several sons and other relatives of senior political figures who have retired, or are soon expected to do so. Whether they will forge a new direction for Laos, however, remains to be seen.
WATCHPOINT: Will the new government address the problems of lack of transparency and pervasive corruption? Or will we see more rhetoric and a continuing lack of political will?
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