Laos' new president Bounnhang Vorachit. Photo: Reuters

Laos’ new president Bounnhang Vorachit. Photo: Reuters

Who’s who in the secretive one-party communist state’s new leadership team.

The 20 April session of the Lao National Assembly confirmed the new leadership team for the Lao government and parliament from 2016 to 2020.

At last Wednesday’s meeting of the 149-member single chamber, the chief of the ruling Communist Party, Bounnhang Vorachit, was installed as the country’s president — in what is seen as a necessary transition of power accounting for outgoing president Choummaly Sayasone having served a maximum 10-year period as the nation’s leader. It also points to the continuation of the status quo.

The appointment of three new deputy presidents to the parliament, General Sengnouan, Dr Bounpone and Mrs Sisay, also highlights the future leadership team, especially as this will be Madame Pany’s last term as president of the National Assembly and her deputy Mr Somphanh is also expected to retire after this legislature.

Dr Phankham is definitely the big mover in the Party ranks, but the path he has taken is no surprise. The new deputy president is a protégé of former premier Thongsing who like him worked in education and the Party’s Organization Commission. Phankham’s birthplace, Huaphan province, does not play a key role in his promotion although it does help.

Dr Thongloune’s appointment was expected by almost everybody in the country given that Laos is hosting the ASEAN Summit this year. The new prime minister has strong support from the south and the north. Many people are unaware that Thongloune began his career in the military so he is not completely civilian and relies on important patronage from these ranks.

The appointment of Dr Sonexay as deputy prime minister has stimulated discussion. Which portfolios is he overseeing in the cabinet? Is he being primed to become the next prime minister? Does he have sufficient experience?

In contrast, Mr Somdy has been around for a long time and is a logical choice as Finance Minister. General Chansamone’s appointment means a northerner is taking charge of the defence ministry for the first time (previous chiefs were Khamtai, Choummaly, Douangchai and Sengnouan). Chansamone is ethnic Khmu and from Phong Saly province. His background is in political training, but he is a veteran of the Battle of Nam Bak.

Mr Chaleun Yiapaoher has been transferred from the Lao Academy of Social Sciences (LASS) to the PM’s Office. He is a widely respected Hmong figure. Dr Soukkongseng, the former president of National University of Laos, will replace him as president of the LASS. He is ethnic Phou Noy.

A big surprise is the appointment of Lien Thikeo as Minister of Agriculture and Forestry, having previously served as Finance Minister. This is definitely a demotion, but not a catastrophic one. Outsiders might wonder what experience Lien has in this field.

The appointment of Khammeung Phongthady to the President’s Office means that the former president Choummaly Sayasone maintains a line of influence through his brother-in-law (from Choummaly’s first wife).

Saleumxay Kommasith’s appointment was no big surprise. He has been a champion of the unexploded ordnance (UXO) cause for many years. It is anticipated that during the course of President Obama’s visit in September that the US will dramatically increase its funding for UXO clearance.

The appointment of Mrs Sengdeuan as Education Minister is a positive development. It is also linked to foreign funding as the UN, EU, Australian government and a group of NGOs embark on a nationwide program to improve education opportunities in disadvantaged districts. Mrs Sengdeuan has a long time relationship with Australia having sent her children there and visited multiple times.

Despite dramatic claims made by foreign press agencies Mr Somphao remains head of the Central Bank. However, his predecessor has definitely slipped off the radar.

The former governor of Savannakhet, Dr Souphanh, has returned to take charge of the Ministry of Planning and Investment where he previously worked as Director of Planning. This allows Kaysone’s son Santiphab to take up the reins in his father’s home province. Dr Souphanh has built a good reputation for his work with the Xeno-Savan Special Economic Zone and is expected to bring his pragmatic approach to the ministry.

The ministers appointed to the PM’s Office combine a mixture of the old and the new. What is more interesting is the appointment of personnel to the National Assembly commissions. The former deputy governor of Vientiane Capital Mr Saithong is now president of the Law Committee. It is not known if Mr Bounpone is a relative of Dr Thongloune, however, he heads the Economics, Technology and Environment Committee.

Dr Vilayvong Bouddakham, the president of the Finance, Planning and Audit Committee, has a background working in youth affairs so he is closely connected to Dr Bounpone. The chief of the Ethnic Affairs Committee, Ms Buaphanh Likaiya, is a newcomer. This portfolio has shifted from a Mon-Khmer parliamentarian to a Sino-Tibetan one.

Khamsouk Vi-inthavong is a rushed appointment as chief of the Security-Defence Committee following the sudden death of Major General Visai Chanthamat this year. The transfer of Dr Eksavang from the Health Ministry to the National Assembly’s Foreign Affairs Committee is a surprising move.

The daughter of Samane Vignaket, Mrs Suansavanh, has been appointed head of the National Assembly Secretariat. She is a career official who has risen steadily up the ranks of the parliamentary staff. She has been an active player in the NA’s foreign affairs in the recent past and is well skilled.

Tobias Moritz is a pen name. The author is a long-time observer of Lao affairs.