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Laos Undergoes Communist Party Leadership Change

FILE - In this file picture taken on July 26, 2005, then Lao Prime Minister Bounnhang Vorachith addresses the opening ceremony of the 36th annual ministerial meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Vientiane.

Lao Communist Party congress just elected party veteran Bounnhang Vorachit as new secretary-general, signaling the country's future direction as it prepares to take over chairmanship of ASEAN.

The Lao Communist Party has undergone a change in leadership during its 10th Party Congress, signaling the country's future direction as it prepares to chair the Association of South East Asian Nations. The move came ahead of a visit to Laos by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

The week-long Lao Communist Party congress was marked by the election of the 78-year-old party veteran Bounnhang Vorachit as the new secretary-general.

Bounnhang has long standing ties with Vietnam, dating back to military training and as a student. He succeeded Choummaly Sayasone, who had been in the post for 10 years.

State media said nearly 700 delegates representing the more than 200,000 party members attended the five day congress in Vientiane, the 10th congress since the Communist Party came to power in 1975.

The congress, coming just ahead of an official visit to Laos by Secretary of State Kerry, was also highlighted by promotion of the Foreign Affairs Minister Thongloun Sisoulith to the post of prime minister.

Seeking better relations with US

Diplomatic sources in Vientiane told VOA that Thongloun has been a long-standing advocate of rebuilding bilateral ties with the U.S.

But Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University, stresses that overall policy is unlikely to change under the new leadership and the government will continue to face criticism over its human rights record.

“The new leadership is more of the same. More of the same in terms of repression and constraints on civil society and basic freedoms," he said. "We have had some scandals in the recent past over disappearances or civil society activists and human rights violations — so that is expected to be maintained.”

Analysts say the retirement of two pro-China politburo members may also weaken Beijing’s growing influence.

China has been Laos’ largest foreign investor, followed by Vietnam and Thailand.

Deputy Prime Minister Somsavat Lengsavad during the congress said the Party’s goal was to see Laos shed its least developed country status by 2020 and further alleviate poverty.

ASEAN chairmanship

Carl Thayer, a defense analyst at the University of New South Wales, says Laos will have to balance its international diplomacy, with the country taking over chairmanship of ASEAN and hosting major world leaders, including President Barack Obama, in the coming year.

“Obama is going to visit the region in May, particularly to Vietnam. He’s setting up in the last bit of the year where American diplomacy can go with Laos as (ASEAN) chair and try to keep it an independent and neutral course rather than leaning toward China which some people argue would be the case,” said Thayer.

Analysts say by chairing ASEAN Laos will be under the international spotlight as the Communist Party looks to balance ties between China and Vietnam as well as focusing on economic growth.