Laos’ ruling Communist Party Friday promoted Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith to the office of secretary general, replacing retiring party leader Bounnhang Vorachit, state media said as the party finished its three-day congress.
The Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP) elected the Soviet-trained Sisoulith, 75, a senior official who has represented his country on the international stage as foreign minister, to a five-year term as the leader of the Central Committee—setting the stage for his appointment as president.
Sisoulith emerged at the top of a list of 71 members of the Central Committee’s Secretariat, while incumbent LPRP chief and Lao President Bounnhang Vorachith was left off the list, retiring at age 83.
The congress additionally chose 13 members of the Politburo, the party’s top political body, state media reported.
Sisoulith’s leadership will face immediate challenges as landlocked Laos is in danger of defaulting on its debt, as the coronavirus and its global effects have brought the country’s U.S. $18 billion economy to its knees.
In a speech to the congress in Vientiane prior to the election, Sisoulith took aim at poor financial management, debt and murky business practices in the landlocked country of 7.2 million people that has known only LRPR rule since 1975.
“During the last five years, the debt has not been successfully tackled. Our financial management has failed. The stability of our currency has been delicate and our foreign currency reserves have been lower than planned,” he told the congress.
He also told the congress of new five-year socio-economic plan that aims to achieve four percent annual GDP growth through 2025 and raise the average per capita income from $2,500 to $2,887 by then, according to the Vientiane Times.
Sisoulith held multiple senior posts in government since 1987 and became prime minister in 2016 and represented the country at prominent international summits.
He has been a member of the LPRP’s leadership ever since the Lao PDR’s founding in 1975 following the communist victory over the western-backed monarchy that has ushered unbroken one-party rule often in lockstep with neighboring Vietnam’s traditional Leninist political system.
Laos is expected increasingly to shift toward China over the next five years, as Beijing is Laos’ largest debt holder, with more than 75 percent of total bilateral debt. China has a hand in many Lao infrastructure projects as part of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Sisoulith’s predecessor Bounnhang Vorachit last year signed a bilateral cooperation agreement which included the country signing into the BRI “master plan.”
State media reported that Vorachit even told the party congress that the relationship with China was a “partnership of common destiny.”
Some of the major projects Laos is building with Chinese funding include a high-speed railway between the capital Vientiane and southern Chinese city of Kunming. The railway is expected to begin operations at the end of 2021.
Laos is also building large scale hydroelectric dams on the Mekong River, many with Chinese funding, as part of its controversial strategy to become the “Battery of Southeast Asia.”
In September 2020, Laos asked China for a debt restructuring plan, the Financial Times reported.
“Concern is growing that Laos will fall into a debt trap, in which the country will face demands from Beijing to transfer the rights to use and manage its infrastructure as security for repayment,” Nikkei Asia wrote Friday.
Over the next five years, Thongloun Sisoulith will have to navigate needing China to achieve national development goals while avoiding the debt trap, while also maintaining ties with Vietnam, which is in a diplomatic spat with Beijing over territorial claims in the South China Sea.
A low-ranking member of the LPRP and government employee told RFA’s Lao Service Friday that Sisoulith was well qualified for his new role.
“Learning from his past experience, Mr. Thongloun and the other new leaders will be able to hopefully improve our living conditions over the next five years,” the government employee said.
His optimism was not shared by a former government official, who told RFA that the new party leader would do nothing to move away from failing policies in one of Asia’s poorest and most repressive countries.
“Only the top leader will be changed. The true colors of the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party will remain unchanged,” the former official said.
He said expects the new leader to deal with “poverty, debt, corruption, inflation, and the economic impact from the COVID-19 pandemic.”
A resident of the capital Vientiane told RFA that a change in policy, not only in leadership, is what the people need.
“I want him to take better care of the people who have been neglected for so long by the higher-ups. If he is going to introduce changes, those changes should be to improve the living conditions of the people,” the Vientiane resident said.
An LPRP member in the country’s central Borikhamxay province told RFA that Sisoulith is the best person to lead the party because he is well known internationally and has had achievements against corruption in his five years as prime minister.
“As soon as he became PM, he sold all the leaders’ luxury cars, cracked down on illegal logging, and banned wood exports, but he failed to end corruption,” the Borikhamxay LPRP member said.
Sisoulith’s elevation to Secretary General and eventually president will leave a vacancy at prime minister.
It is not clear who Sisoulith will recommend for the position to the general assembly, but sources said current Deputy Prime Minister Sonexay Siphandone is a likely candidate.
“I think Sonexay Siphandone will have a fifty-fifty chance at becoming the new PM because he has been very active lately,” a second party member from the capital told RFA.
But the Borikhamxay party member said predicting the next prime minister would be difficult, because “the top newly elected Party leaders haven’t had enough experience on the world stage.”
The election of Sisoulith and other major LPRP leaders preceded elections for the National Assembly and the Provincial and Capital People’s Councils, scheduled for Feb. 21.
Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Max Avary. Written in English by Eugene Whong.