Laos’ new leader Thongloun Sisoulith indirectly ordered that the governor of a poor province scrap plans to buy a pricey new fleet of cars for newly elected provincial officials, state media reported.
“I hear that some provinces are ordering new cars. If they are not absolutely necessary, please don’t do that during this difficult time,” said Thongloun, who recently became General Secretary of the Central Committee of the ruling Lao People’s Revolutionary Party, the top post in the one-party state.
A memo obtained by RFA on Feb. 12 states that Attapeu province's Governor Leth Xayaphone on Jan. 22 gave authorization to the Xaysana Company to arrange the purchase of “eight Toyota Prado SUVs at a cost of $736,000 and 22 Toyota Fortuners at a cost of $1.265 million.”
The memo ordered the province’s administration office and finance department to cooperate with Xaysana to complete the order.
Thongloun’s recommendation to Attapeu province came about one week after he publicly called on the government to rein in corruption, an issue he has championed since coming to power as Laos’ prime minister in 2016.
Many see the auto deal as excessive, especially since Attapeu is one of the areas most affected by Laos’ worst-ever dam disaster. On July 23, 2018, billions of cubic feet of water from a tributary of the Mekong River poured over a collapsed saddle dam at the Xe Pian-Xe Namnoy (PNPC) hydropower project in nearby Champassak province, sweeping away homes and causing severe flooding in villages downstream in Attapeu and beyond into Cambodia.
The province still has thousands of survivors living in temporary relocation shelters and has been slow in paying out compensation and building new houses, a problem that has been exacerbated by supply and labor shortages due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Residents of the province told RFA they agreed that buying cars should not be an immediate priority.
“The premier is right. The Attapeu governor should use that money to develop the province. He could pave roads, for example, instead of buying new cars. Being frugal is always better,” an Attapeu businessman told RFA.
A resident of the province said the recipients of the new cars probably did not need them.
“They can buy their own cars. The high-ranking government officials are already rich,” the Attapeu resident said, also recommending the provincial government use the funds for development.
Several other residents in Attapeu and Vientiane told RFA that new cars for the Attapeu officials were frivolous at a time the government should be tightening its belt in an economy devastated by the coronavirus pandemic.
An official from the Attapeu Administration Office told RFA Wednesday that the province has not yet purchased the cars.
“The provincial leadership is considering scrapping the plan, as recommended by the central government, and also because we have received a lot of unfavorable reaction from the general public.”
A government worker in Vientiane told RFA that in most years the plan would not be seen as corrupt.
“Under normal circumstances, it’s quite customary for the party or the government to buy new cars once every five years for the newly elected leaders. But this is not a normal year,” the government worker said.
Thongloun’s defining issue as prime minister has been a war against corruption. Shortly after coming to power in 2016, he spearheaded an anti-graft campaign. In 2018, an editorial published in Asean Today described his efforts as a losing battle. But he hopes to carry over hardline policies against corruption into his new role.
At a Feb. 5 swearing-in ceremony for the Central Committee’s new inspection committee head, Thongloun said that the committee must more closely inspect party activities to eliminate corruption or risk further deterioration in the party’s political support.
Thongloun highlighted areas where corruption was most rampant, such as in the collection of taxes, management of government funds and expenditures, investments in infrastructural development, survey and design of development projects, bidding and procurement for development projects, management of land and forests, and mining.
But despite his orders, many Lao residents see government corruption as a fact of life in a country ruled by the LPRP since 1975.
“What the leader says is good, but in practice, at the lower level, corruption is widespread,” a resident of Savannakhet province, in the country’s south, told RFA’s Lao Service last week.
“My grandson, who goes to school in a city here in Savannakhet province, had to pay a U.S. $6 fee to the authorities instead of the usual $3. They always ask for extra money. After he graduates, he will also have to pay his future employer a sum between 50,000 and 500,000 Thai baht ($1,673 and $16,734) to get a job,” said the Savannakhet resident, who requested anonymity for security reasons.
A resident of the capital Vientiane told RFA that stopping corruption will be a challenge under a government culture of impunity.
“It’s not just one or two individual officials… Not long ago the inspection body announced they discovered a large number of corrupt officials, but only a few were punished,” the Vientiane resident said.
“They inspect and inspect. The inspectors report cases of corruption to the National Assembly, but nothing happens to the corrupt officials,” another Lao resident told RFA.
Other residents said most officials seek public office to line their own pockets.
“Government workers, from the village chief to the country’s top leader, get rich very quickly. They often receive extra income,” a resident of Pakse, Champassak province, in the country’s south, told RFA.
“In Laos, the corrupt officials are not punished,” a former government worker told RFA, adding, “No one has been jailed for corruption. That’s why so many are not confident in our leadership. I’m certainly not.”
Laos has a history of widespread government corruption. During the annual general meeting of the Finance ministry in November, Vice President Phankham Viphavanh said government officials had “directly asked for money from people, with some even threatening the use of force.”
On Jan. 29, Bounthong Chitmany, then head of the Party’s Central Inspection Committee, said during a committee meeting, “In the last five years from 2016 to 2020, we found 3,200 corrupt government workers. So far 93 of them have been charged with financial crimes and 64 of them have been found guilty.”
Unlike 2018 and 2019 and the year before, Chitmany did not report the total financial loss to corruption that occurred in 2020.
The Government Inspection Authority (GIA) reported in early 2020 that in 2019, the government lost up to $120 million to corruption, disciplined 700 state employees; fired 400 of them and recovered $4 million. In the previous year, the GIA found 970 were involved in corruption amounting to $107 million.
Transparency International reported last month that Laos’ ranking worsened dropping from 130th in 2019 to 134th in 2020 out of 180 countries.
Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Max Avary. Written in English by Eugene Whong.