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Laos President Steps Down at End of Party Congress

The president of Laos, Khamtai Siphandone has stepped down as head of the ruling Communist Party and been replaced by Vice President Choummali Saignasone who is likely to become the next president after elections next month.

The Lao Communist Party announced the transfer of power Tuesday at the end of its regular, five-year congress in the capital, Vientiane.

Government spokesman Yong Chantalangsy said Lao President Khamtai Siphandone asked to retire as head of the party. Vice President Choummali Saignasone was chosen to replace him as the party's leader.

"In the first meeting of the Central Committee, Mr. Choummali Saignasone has been elected as the new general-secretary of the party," said spokesman Yong.

A new National Assembly that is to be elected on April 30 will choose a new government and historically, the party general-secretary becomes president.

Yong said two new members were elected to the powerful Political Bureau, Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Somsavat Lengsavat, and Phani Yathothou, vice-president of the National Assembly and the Bureau's first female member.

Yong said that in an effort to rejuvenate the party's aging leadership, one-third of the Central Committee members are new.

Retiring President Khamtai, 82, was one of the last remaining communist leaders who took power in 1975 at the end of the Vietnam-War era.

A former civil servant during the French colonial era, Mr. Khamtai joined the communist insurgency following World War II and rose through the ranks to become the military leader of the Pathet Lao.

He was defense minister and deputy prime minister during the early years of the government. He became prime minister in 1991 upon the death of his predecessor, Kaysone Phomivan, and president seven years later.

His successor, Vice President Choummali, also was defense minister and deputy prime minister until being named vice president at the previous party congress in 2001.

The Lao government has been gradually opening up to the outside world since the collapse of its communist benefactor, the Soviet Union, in 1991.

Milton Osborne, an expert in Southeast Asia politics at Australia's Lowy Institute for International Policy, says that despite the changes, Laos' leaders continue to exert tight controls on political life and the news media.

"They are very secretive still," he noted. "But we do have a sense that in relation to the changes taking place in the world they are looking to find some way to open up and try and do something to boost their economic prospects."

Osborne says that the Lao government historically has moved cautiously and as a result policies are not likely to change rapidly under the new leadership.