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Politics

Laos taps Xi classmate as presidential aide, deepening China tilt

Ex-commerce chief Khemmani offers personal link to Vientiane's top creditor

Khemmani Pholsena, left, reportedly attended the same elementary school as Xi Jinping in Beijing.

BANGKOK -- Laos has appointed a former schoolmate of Chinese President Xi Jinping to serve as a top aide to the Southeast Asian nation's new leader.

Khemmani Pholsena, 64, was named the minister in charge of the presidential office. She will advise President Thongloun Sisoulith, who doubles as general secretary of the communist ruling party.

Her appointment suggests Laos will draw closer to China, which provides hefty economic aid to its neighbor. Khemmani leaves her post as minister of industry and commerce.

The presidential office minister ranks 31st within the Lao People's Revolutionary Party. But Khemmani is the daughter of a diplomat who spent time in Beijing, and it is believed she attended the same elementary school as Xi while in the Chinese capital.

Xi, 67, traveled to the Laotian capital of Vientiane in 2017 following the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference in Vietnam. During his stay, Xi met with Khemmani and her family.

"I am very delighted to reunite with my old classmates and old friends," Xi said at the time, according to China's Foreign Ministry. "The Pholsena family is China's good friend and old friend."

A high-speed rail project connecting with China is under construction in northern Laos.

Her ties to Xi presumably influenced the transfer to her new position, said Norihiko Yamada of the Institute of Developing Economies at the Japan External Trade Organization.

"I anticipate Khemmani will accompany Thongloun during his trips to China, and the intention to engage with China is a significant factor" in her appointment, Yamada said.

China is the largest creditor nation for Laos. The balance of public-sector debt Laos owed to Beijing jumped 20% in 2019 to roughly $5.2 billion, according to the World Bank. China accounts for about 80% of Laotian external debt on a bilateral basis.

Large-scale projects backed by Chinese funds, such as hydroelectric dams and high-speed rail, have propped up Laos's economic growth, which hits the 6%-7% range annually.

The one-party state's National Assembly selected Thongloun as president Monday and later approved the slate of cabinet members, which includes Khemmani.

"I'll do whatever it takes to improve the livelihood of the people," Thongloun told lawmakers Monday.

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