- Laos in 2019:Moving Heaven and Earth on the Mekong
Click for larger view
View full resolution
[End Page 174]
While the year saw some venting of concern at official corruption in the National Assembly, remarkable in itself, it is rent-seeking activities that define the Lao People's Democratic Republic (Lao PDR) party-state. A market economy operating under a Leninist system, events in 2019 did not detract from the general trajectory of a state hell-bent on prioritizing major projects such as hydro-electricity generating dams and the Chinese-built railroad, moving heaven and earth on the Mekong River, whatever the social and ecological consequences locally or downstream. But the practice of issuing licences and concessions for casinos and/or agribusiness ventures also creates market distortions. Drought, disease and human dislocation stemming from mega projects or disasters (as with the 2018 dam collapse in Attapeu Province), land alienation and compensation issues all came to national and/or international attention during the year. Various serious human rights cases, including disappearances, suggest the longevity of the Lao PDR authoritarian developmental model, one that brooks no domestic challenge or even external scrutiny.
Typically, draft laws and amendments to laws are discussed at monthly sessions of the nation's National Assembly, which is invariably chaired by the prime minister. Notably, at the 7th Ordinary Session of the Assembly's 8th legislature held in Vientiane on 23–24 July in the presence of National Assembly president Mrs Pany Yathortou, Lao PDR president Bounnhang Vorachit, and other party [End Page 175] and government leaders, Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith called for the sectors responsible to shoulder more responsibility in finding solutions to six pressing issues that were seen as affecting socio-economic development. The first major issue was an outbreak of dengue fever, which had claimed 37 lives and saw at least 16,690 people falling sick. The second topic was an epidemic of African swine fever. Third on the list was the infestation of sweetcorn crops by a plague of caterpillars in Xayaboury Province, which had destroyed 30 per cent of 35,000 hectares of the crop. The fourth issue concerned persistent drought, which resulted in low river levels and affected rice and other crops. The fifth matter of concern was the fluctuating exchange rate, the falling value of the national currency, the kip, and the depletion of foreign-exchange reserves, seen as driving up commodity import prices and hindering economic growth. The sixth issue related to posts on social media by members of the public commenting negatively on state administration and management. Other issues debated included the development and management of special and specific economic zones, a draft decree on the policy for economic development in Xaysomboun Province, and a draft decree relating to climate change.1
At the 8th Ordinary Session of the National Assembly running from 7 November until 6 December, Assembly president Pany Yathotou highlighted the progress made in the 8th five-year National Socio-economic Development Plan for 2016–20, and the challenges posed by the global economy, the trade war, natural disasters and climate change. Assembly members approved the appointment of Deputy Prime Minister Sonexay Siphandone to a second post as minister of planning and investment, following the retirement of Souphanh Keomixay. Also approved was the appointment of Kikeo Khaykhamphithoune as incoming minister of information, culture and tourism following the retirement of Bosengkham Vongdara. In his address, Prime Minister Thongloun maintained that the key focus of the government the following year would be to maintain political stability, security and social order (a set of priorities not inconsistent with a party-state under siege, even if the threat is only from its own people). On his part, Sonexay delivered a report on the implementation of the socio-economic development plan, the state budget and fiscal plan, while also alluding to "macroeconomic difficulties" for the year ahead and to the impact of recent floods. According to schedule, Assembly members then prepared to debate a draft of a Law on Cinema and the draft Law on Gender Equality. Draft amendments to six laws already promulgated were scheduled to be debated. These comprised the Laws on Bankruptcy...