Laos: Winds Of Reform Blow

2001

Thongrith Phoumirath

Since the 7th National Congress of the ruling party in Laos, there have been some moves within the Party and Government circles to usher in more reforms in the economic arena, but not in the political one.

The Party Congress passed a resolution to involve overseas Lao people in the development of the country. This resolution has been taken up by the Lao Front for National Construction. This Front is one of the four major ‘pillars’ of Lao political and administrative establishments of Laos, along with the Party, the National Assembly and the Government. It has parallel organisation with the other three ‘pillars’ right down to the village level, with their memberships cross-pollinating at every level from national to village. Many of the members of the Front hold many important positions in the Party, in the Government, are members of the Assembly and are governors of many of the provinces. The President of the Front is a member of the Political Bureau of the central Committee of the Party, while one Vice-President of the Front is a member of the same Central Committee.

The Front, in April, invited Lao overseas from Australia, USA, Canada and France to attend its own 7th National congress in Vientiane. However, only delegations from Australia and France made it to the Congress. The main purpose of the invitation was the exchange of ideas and perspective on cooperation between diasporic Lao and the Vientiane regime on ways to develop the country. At the same time as these delegations were attending the Congress, a group of some 30 Lao-Americans was visiting Laos to investigate the feasibility of investing in Lao economy – from restaurants to music entertainment fields.

Recent media reports suggest that the Lao Government is to form ‘Special Economic Zones’ in order to facilitate economic development of the country. The province of Savannakhet, in the central south of the country, has been earmarked for such a zone, in anticipation of the completion of the second bridge across the Mekong River. This bridge, due to open in two years’ time, will provide the link between Thailand, Laos and Vietnam through Laos’s National Route 9; and Thailand, Laos and China through Route 13 to the north.

Despite these moves towards more open-mindedness in the economic arena, and an open-door policy toward diasporic Lao, concerns remain into the political arena. Despite the cross- fertilisation of personnel, ideas and expertise within the four pillars of Laos’s government and political life, questions remain about transparency and conflict of interest, and corruption and abuse of power in high places.

WATCHPOINT: The Lao Government will have to address its political problems if it is to be seen as serious about economic development of the country.

 

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