The Lao province of Attapeu has suspended a controversial plan to purchase 30 new luxury vehicles for newly elected local officials following public criticism from the country’s national leader, sources in Lao say.
The suspension, which takes immediate effect, was announced in a Feb. 19 notice issued by the Party Committee of Attapeu province, reading, “The plan is suspended until the central government makes a decision on this matter.”
The original order to purchase the vehicles, including eight Toyota Prado SUVs at a cost of $736,000 and 22 Toyota Fortuners at a cost of $1.26 million, was issued on Jan. 22 by provincial governor Leth Xayaphone, according to a memo obtained by RFA on Feb. 12.
The plan’s suspension was confirmed to RFA on Monday by an official of Attapeu’s administration office, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Also speaking to RFA, Attapeu residents welcomed the move, with one saying, “I agree with the decision to suspend the plan, because it will cost too much. Also, the new Party members already have old cars that they can use.”
“I support this decision because the cars are too expensive,” another resident agreed, adding, “This would be a huge and wasteful expense for the government. Besides, prime minister Thongloun Sisolith ordered the government to sell all its luxury cars four years ago.”
Thongloun, who recently also became General Secretary of the Central Committee of the ruling Lao People’s Revolutionary Party, the top post in the one-party state, had already criticized the plan to purchase the vehicles in remarks reported last week by state media.
“I hear that some provinces are ordering new cars. If they are not absolutely necessary, please don’t do that during this difficult time,” Thongloun said.
Others in Laos also saw the auto deal as excessive, as Attapeu is one of the areas in Laos most affected by the July 23, 2018 Xe Pian-Xe Namnoy (PNPC) hydropower dam disaster, which swept away homes and caused severe flooding in Attapeu and nearby Champassak province.
Attapeu 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.
Laos has a history of widespread government corruption, with the Government Inspection Authority (GIA) reporting in early 2020 that the government lost up to $120 million in 2019 to corruption, disciplined 700 state employees, and fired 400 of them. In the previous year, the GIA found 970 were involved in corruption amounting to $107 million.
Transparency International reported last month that Laos’ corruption ranking worsened, dropping from 130th in 2019 to 134th in 2020 out of 180 countries.
Reported and translated by Max Avary for RFA’s Lao Service. Written in English by Richard Finney.