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Lao leader must now listen to the people

Lao leader must now listen to the people

MONDAY, December 05, 2016
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Premier Thongloun has taken strong steps to combat corruption, but made no progress on another crucial pledge 

Though hardly a new face in Lao politics, Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith has injected new vigour into his country in the seven months since he took office in April.
Anointed by the National Assembly, Thongloun pledged to forge a transparent, unified and creative government to 
implement the ruling People’s Revolutionary Party’s road map and do his best to serve the 
In the intervening months, Thongloun has proved he is a leader who can deliver on his pledges of development. Key to those pledges is reducing graft, which has become routine among power-holders at every level and is strangling momentum for progress.   
The premier announced a crackdown on corruption soon after taking office and the results have been impressive. 
An investigation by the ministries of Finance and of Planning and Investment revealed that state coffers are being drained of tens of millions of dollars by so-called ghost projects – schemes which exist in name only.
Finance Ministry inspectors recently revealed that more than 785.8 billion kip (Bt3.4 billion) had been sucked up by self-serving officials behind 60 ghost projects in recent years. Authorities had netted 95 of the officials involved but recovered less than a third of the siphoned funds.
Illegal logging is another parasite on the body politic in Laos. The plunder has wreaked ecological devastation in national forests as unscrupulous officials have exploited their status as gatekeepers to line their pockets.
In May, the government announced a ban on the export of various tree species, timber products and ornamental plants in a move to take back ownership of natural resources. Authorities have also shuttered some 1,154 illegally run furniture factories and closed 20 plants that were processing wood in or near protected forests.
Premier Thongloun has taken more steps against ecologically damaging practices by prohibiting new large banana plantations, after they were found to be using hazardous chemicals that affected the health of communities in the north.
The move was praised as a brave step since the banana plantations in question are mostly run with Chinese investment, which is extremely influential in the Lao economy and government.
Despite widespread praise for these and other measures, much still needs to be done if Laos is to progress. In his April inauguration address to lawmakers, Thongloun vowed to listen to the opinions and aspirations of his compatriots across the nation. But that pledge seems empty given the many restrictions on freedom of expression, notably social media. As he was about to take office, several social media users were arrested for posting what authorities deemed was “anti-government” content.
Another group runs a Facebook page that helps publicise the work being done by Prime Minister Thongloun. To make good on his vow to listen to the people, the premier must allow social media users the leeway to post their own ideas, criticism and wishes.
As long as that two-way channel between the people and their government remains closed, Thongloun cannot claim he is forging a new and modern Laos.