Corruption in Laos is getting worse. The country’s political structure creates an environment where corruption thrives. But conversation is sewing the seeds for change.
On June 14, members of the Lao National Assembly stood up, one after another, and recounted cases of bribery, embezzlement and corruption within the country’s courts and political system.
Members described how courts routinely reversed decisions, revisiting judgements after receiving letters in favour of the accused, even after the verdict has been decided. In other instances, the courts explicitly asked for bribes from the accused. If none were given, the cases were delayed.
The incident marked the most damning criticism from the Lao National Assembly in a series of complaints against endemic corruption in Laotian institutions. Will the moment mark a watershed for Thongloun Sisoulith’s government and ignite a push to eradicate corruption?
Thongloun Sisoulith has not delivered on campaign promises
Thongloun ran on a platform committed to restoring the Communist Party’s public image. He promised to drive corruption out of national institutions and rid the party of corrupt apparatchiks lining their own pockets at the public’s expense.
After coming to power in 2016, he made several nominal gestures to this end. He outlawed the Lao timber trade, which had become a byword for corruption and backhanders. He also auctioned off government-issue BMW 7-series and Mercedes-Benz automobiles, replacing them with cheaper Toyota Camrys.
However, Thongloun’s efforts have failed to ignite institutional change. Laos languishes at 137th place in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions index for 2018, 10 places behind its 2016 standing. In 2017, the country lost an estimated US$50 million to corruption, three times the amount lost in 2016.
The Ministry of Public Works and Transportation uncovered 1,002 separate cases of corruption from state employees in 2018— the majority of which were related to infrastructure development projects. Of these, only 91 cases resulted in jail time. A further 61 were charged with economic crimes. The remaining 850 cases did not result in legal proceedings.
Phantom projects hamper Laos’ attempts to modernise its infrastructure. These projects have received government funding but have not been undertaken to completion. Three road construction projects in Xam Tai district have been left unfinished, despite receiving the full budget required for construction. Another road construction project in Luang Prabang province sits unfinished after funds allocated to the project disappeared.
The Laotian political structure presents a barrier to tackling corruption
Any effort to tackle corruption will be unable to scratch the surface while Laos remains a one-party state. The lack of political opposition means Communist Party members are not held accountable to the electorate.
The Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP) vets all National Assembly candidates and dominates the political landscape. In 2016, the LPRP won 144 out of 149 seats, with the other three seats going to LPRP-approved independent candidates.
With power so closely tied to the LPRP, there is no margin for an independent judiciary. The Provincial People’s Courts have been responsible for prosecuting and sentencing officials accused of corruption. However, these courts stand accused of corruption themselves.
Media restrictions also leave the national press unable to push governmental accountability. The LPRP maintains a stranglehold on the Lao media landscape. Foreign media outlets may only set up offices in Laos if they submit to the censorship of their content.
Nor are there substantial external influences pushing the Laotian government to adopt a firmer stance towards corruption. Beijing provides the funding for many of the government’s big-ticket infrastructure projects and Vietnam is the country’s main source of foreign direct investment (FDI). Neither the Chinese nor Vietnamese governments place an emphasis on transparency and both political and business landscapes are ensconced with corrupt practices.
Conversation is the foundation for change
While Laos remains a one-party state, corruption will exist in the national polity and judiciary. However, the fact that elements within the party are voicing their frustration marks progress.
Bringing graft down to manageable levels will be a slow process, spanning multiple election cycles and governments. Events since 2016 indicate that the issue is getting worse, not better. But conversation sews the seeds of change. The National Assembly’s damning assessment of Lao corruption will sew these seeds, dragging the corruption issue back into the national discussion.
Members will know that the best they can hope for under the current circumstances is to stop the situation from getting worse. The success of anti-corruption efforts is entwined with the introduction of increased political freedoms, the easing of media restrictions and the nurturing of democratic norms and political opposition. They can sew the seeds, but it will up to the Laotian people to nourish them, care for them and help them sprout.