Two candidates for reelection to the Lao National Assembly, the country’s parliament, have been removed from the list of persons eligible to run, apparently for remarks criticizing corruption in the upper ranks of the government and ruling party, Lao sources say.
Buakham Thippavong and Saithong Keoduangdy, who had both held seats in the country’s eighth parliament, were set to run again in general elections set for Feb. 21, a high-ranking Lao official told RFA’s Lao Service on Friday.
“But they won’t be allowed to contend now, because they have spoken out against the ‘big guys’ [national leaders]. They are like small cars that get hurt by crashing into big trucks,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“They would both like to promote reforms in Laos, but some leaders consider their criticisms to be a little too harsh,” he added.
Sunday’s election follows the elevation on Jan. 15 by the ruling Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP) Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith to the office of party secretary general.
Sisoulith’s leadership faces tough challenges with landlocked Laos in danger of defaulting on its debt, while the coronavirus and its global effects have brought the country’s U.S. $18 billion economy to its knees.
In a previous session of parliament, Buakham Thippavong—considered an ‘iron lady’ by many in Laos—called out top leaders for setting poor examples in the country’s official anti-corruption drive, saying “rain water leaks from the roof, not from the floor.”
Speaking in a session of parliament held in 2019, Buangkham noted that many holding seats in the National Assembly also hold title to hundreds of hectares of land, adding, “Powerful officials working in cooperation with the private sector often take over people’s land, disadvantaging the poor.”
Also in 2019, Saithong Keoduangdy had urged the government to inspect the properties of the director of the powerful state-owned Electricite Du Laos power company both before and after his terms in office, to check for unusual gains in wealth.
He had also pointed to irregularities in the collection of the country’s taxes.
“This nation will be bankrupted someday because middle-level officials put their heads together to draw off money from tax collections, later saying there was less revenue because we’re in an economic recession. That isn’t right,” he said.
A model for others
Buangkham and Saithong had also questioned government and national leaders on different issues on several occasions, sources said.
Both lawmakers had kept up their efforts to debate sensitive issues during sessions in the Assembly last year, an observer of debates in the parliament told RFA, adding, “They should be allowed to run again for election.”
“They actually act as voices for the people, so I don’t understand why we are called a ‘democracy,’” he said, referring to the one-party communist country’s official title, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic.
With Bouangkham’s and Saithong’s removal from the list of eligible candidates, “people feel they are losing their representation and voice,” a legal advisor to Lao civil society said, also speaking on condition his name not be used.
“At least, they’re a model for others, and this raises the question why other representatives just sit in the House and do nothing. They stay there till their terms end, but they never really say anything,” he added.
‘We didn’t kick them out’
Also speaking to RFA, Somphou Duangsavanh—spokesman for the National Election Committee of the National Assembly–said that Bouangkham and Saithong had been disqualified for reelection only because they had reached retirement age. “We don’t have any problem with them. We didn’t kick them out,” he said.
“We have only decided to limit the number of older representatives [in the Assembly]. Otherwise, we won’t be able to fulfill our mission,” he said, adding that several members of the previous parliament not running for reelection are standing instead for election to provincial people’s councils.
Others are retiring or returning to employment in the organizations in which they previously worked, he said.
Only 23 of 148 members of the previous parliament are running for reelection this year—a reduction that sources described as unprecedented. With the addition of candidates running for the first time, 224 are now candidates for election, with 164 seats up for grabs.
“It’s hard to say why there are so many changes. I have not heard of any significant political changes happening in the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party,” Ian Baird, a professor of geography at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, told RFA. The country of 7.2 million people that has known only LRPR rule since 1975.
“It is notable that many children of former leaders in the Party appear to be on the rise, with last names such as Phomvihane, Siphandone, Sipraseuth, and others, although it is hard to know the implications,” he said.
“It is still too early to know for sure.”
A voice for the people
Many of those not appearing on this year’s candidates list had worked hard in the past to represent voters’ interests, said Vanlang Khamsouk, chairman of the U.S.-based Lao Coalition for Peace and Democracy.
“They presented villagers’ petitions on questions of the cost of living, the economy, land grabs and unfair compensation, corruption, illegal logging, and other issues impacting villagers’ lives,” he said, adding that all of these problems have pointed squarely at the failures of the country’s ruling party over the last 45 years.
“We hope that the new members of the National Assembly will be a voice for the people and serve them, though,” he said. “We can’t assess their work in advance, but we want to share the people’s hopes for them.”
”They should be a voice for the people, and not for the government or the party,” he said.
Few in Laos show interest in the outcome of the country’s general elections, meanwhile, with many convinced that government and party leaders have already chosen the winners, one Lao retiree said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“The party and our leaders have already selected them. It doesn’t matter if we vote or not,” he said.
Reported and translated by Ounkeo Souksavanh for RFA’s Lao Service. Written in English by Richard Finney.