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Communist Laos Appoints New Leadership

Laos' National Assembly has appointed 70-year-old Choummaly Sayasone to replace the outgoing president, Khamtay Siphandone.

In March Mr. Choummaly was named general secretary of the country's Communist Party, officially called the Lao People's Revolutionary Party. Historically, its leader is chosen as president.

The National Assembly elected the new president Thursday at its first meeting since elections in April, when the ruling party won all but two seats.

It also rubber-stamped the party's appointment of Bouasone Bouphavanh as the country's new prime minister. He replaces Boungnang Vorachit.

The nomination of Bouasone, the 56-year-old former deputy prime minister, was widely anticipated after he moved up the Politburo ranks at the last congress of the Lao People's Revolutionary Party in March.

The Soviet Union-trained, long-time protégé of the former president pledged to implement the party's goal of making Laos poverty-free by 2020 and halving the number of poor to 15-percent in five years.

But Australian academic Martin Stuart-Fox, an expert on Laos, says Bouasone is not likely to introduce any radical reforms.

"He has stated that he will do something about corruption and maintain the direction of Lao economic development - in other words it will be open to foreign investment, and it will be a market economy," he said. "But I do not think we can expect any radical change in direction from this particular government."

Stuart-Fox says two of the four new deputy prime ministers are generals, indicating the influence of the military remains strong.

The country's communist regime came to power in 1975, following decades of struggle against French colonial troops and U.S. forces, whose war against neighboring Vietnam spilled over the borders.

The government of Laos, one of the world's poorest countries, has partially liberalized the economy to encourage development, but maintains a strong grip on political power.