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At Party Congress, Lao Communists Maintain Status Quo

Laos' Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong (L) and Vietnam's Communist Party General Secretary and National Assembly Chairman Nguyen Phu Trong (R) talk at the Party's headquarters in Hanoi, February 28, 2011

At a five-year party Congress in Laos this month, the ruling Communist party elected new leaders and outlined socio-economic development goals. Analysts say the event will not trigger sweeping political or economic changes in the small Southeast Asian nation.

Communist leaders of Laos met this month for a five-year party Congress. Analysts say the event reinforced entrenched power dynamics and will not significantly alter the impoverished one-party state's development or foreign policy strategies.

Laos, which has about six million people and borders China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Myanmar, is among the poorest countries in the world and relies heavily on foreign aid and investment.

At the Congress, which ran from March 17 through March 21 in the Laotian capital Vientiane, delegates re-elected Choummaly Sayasone, 75, as general-secretary of the Lao People's Revolutionary Party and elected new members to the party's Central Committee and Politburo.

They also adopted the goal of achieving "annual macroeconomic growth of about 8 percent" for the years 2011 through 2015 and reaffirmed a goal of earning middle-income country status by 2020.

Martin Stuart-Fox, a Laos expert and professor emeritus at the University of Queensland in Australia, said the Congress reinforces the power of the Lao People's Revolutionary Party and the Lao Army, which is represented in the party.

He said the Congress does not signal a shift toward democracy. Stuart-Fox said Laos welcomes aid and investment from powerful neighbors - including China, Vietnam and Thailand, its three top investors - as well as the "capitalist West."

"Lao foreign policy is predicated on being friends with everybody, and I think that they'll continue to try to do that, and I think they'll probably do it quite well," Stuart-Fox noted.

Some analysts say the December appointment of Lao Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong signaled a shift toward pro-Vietnamese, rather than pro-Chinese, factions within Lao Communist leadership, but others say that assessment ignores nuances of Lao politics.

Martin Stuart-Fox added that regardless of party reshuffling, Laos will continue to court foreign investment by selling off the country's natural resources, principally in the timber, mining and hydropower sectors.

He said it is "quite possible" that Laos, which had a real GDP growth rate of 7 percent in 2009, will achieve an 8 percent growth rate this year. However, he noted, not all Lao people are benefitting from national economic growth.

"The problem in Laos is that the wealth is very badly distributed, so that all that wealth is ending up in the Mekong [River] Valley towns, and very little of it is getting out into the country and up into the mountains, where the minorities live, so that you're going to have a continued high level of rural poverty in Laos," Stuart-Fox noted.

It is "probably doubtful" that Laos will achieve its goal of escaping underdevelopment by 2020, he added.

Per-capita income in Laos was less than $1,000 in 2010, according to U.S. State Department estimates.

Communists have ruled Laos since the end of a civil war in 1975.

The United States bombed Laos extensively during the Vietnam War, and Lao officials claim their country is the most heavily bombed on earth per capita.

In recent months, Laos has provoked criticism from environmentalists, non-governmental organizations and Vietnamese officials by approving a Thai developer's plan to build the first of 12 hydropower dams planned for the lower Mekong River.

Lao officials say building dams on the Mekong will spur economic growth and lift the country out of poverty.

Neighboring China already operates four dams on the river's upstream reaches.