Laos' secretive Communist Party gathers to pick leaders

Laos Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong has highlighted a decade-long boom which has seen average annual growth of 7.4 percent (AFP Photo/Manan Vatsyayana)

The secretive ruling Communist Party of Laos on Monday opened its five-yearly congress, a gathering which decides who runs the tightly-controlled country and sets economic priorities.

The communists have ruled the impoverished Southeast Asian nation since 1975 at the end of the Vietnam War, which spilt into Laos and saw the country blanketed by bombs in a secret war led by the CIA.

State media said 684 delegates -- representing more than 200,000 party members -- would attend the five-day meeting in the capital Vientiane.

The congress will select the members of the party's politburo and central committee, the key bodies governing the landlocked but resource-rich country.

It comes as Laos assumes the year-long chairmanship of the ASEAN regional bloc that will see a cascade of diplomatic meetings and open the cloistered, tightly-controlled nation to greater scrutiny.

Launching the congress, Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong highlighted a decade-long boom which has seen average annual growth of 7.4 percent.

Outlining a vision for lifting the country out of poverty, he told delegates that the "difference between city and countryside will narrow... human resources will develop, citizens' rights will be protected, the environment will be preserved."

Laos faces a plethora of major environmental challenges, many the result of Chinese-built megadams, mining operations and massive deforestation.

The nation has one of the fastest growing young populations in the world with around 70 percent of its 6.7 million people under 30.

Nonetheless its leaders almost exclusively hail from the revolutionary era and are in their seventies, overseeing a tightly-controlled nation with a poor human rights record.

The last party congress in 2011 opted for stability with Choummaly Sayasone retaining the top party position of secretary general.

- Generational shift -

But Choummaly, 79, is widely expected to retire and observers expect the congress to see political manoeuvres by his allies and opponents.

Experts on the secretive state told AFP that Vice President Bounnhang Vorachith was his most likely successor.

That could leave Prime Minister Thongsing, often seen as a rival to Choummaly, on the sidelines.

One Western official, requesting anonymity, said the old guard were losing some of their grip, particularly within the central committee which sits under the politburo.

"There's a transition going on between the last revolutionary veterans and a younger generation of cadres, many of whom went to universities in Vietnam or the Soviet Union and therefore have a somewhat more international mindset," the official said.

However it is unlikely that the politburo, which remains firmly in control of revolutionary era leaders, will see many of these younger cadres join their ranks.

Washington is increasingly courting the isolated state, part of President Barack Obama's so-called "pivot" to Asia.

Obama is scheduled to make the first visit by a US president to Laos in the summer. Secretary of State John Kerry is also planning to visit Vientiane this month.

But human rights remain a sticking point between the two nations, particularly the disappearance of prominent community activist Sombath Somphone, who was last seen being stopped at a police checkpoint in 2012.

Laos' communist rulers heavily restrict foreign media access to the country.

Western media have not been granted permission to observe the congress, though some journalists from China and Vietnam usually attend.

The Foreign Mass Media Division told AFP that "due to the short time of preparation" for the five-yearly event, it was unable to arrange foreign media coverage.

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