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Politics

New Laos president faces rising China debt and battered economy

Party General Secretary Thongloun enjoys high support as 'clean' leader

Thongloun Sisoulith will oversee an economy reeling from the coronavirus pandemic.    © Reuters

BANGKOK -- The National Assembly of Laos on Monday elected Thongloun Sisoulith, the general secretary of the ruling party, as the nation's new president, entrusting a popular party leader with rebooting an economy devastated by the pandemic.

Thongloun, 75, is the first civilian with no military background to serve in the top job. He was foreign minister from 2006 before becoming prime minister in 2016. In addition to his native language, he speaks Vietnamese, Russian and English.

Thongloun was chosen as general secretary of the Lao People's Revolutionary Party at January's party congress. Assuming Thongloun's old post of prime minister is Vice President Phankham Viphavanh. Both men will serve five-year terms.

Mindful of the traps of one-party rule, Thongloun has taken great pains to avoid even a hint of impropriety in his conduct. He does not accept gifts or meet with guests outside his official duties.

With his clean image, Thongloun is immensely popular among the public.

"His popularity rivals that of Kaysone Phomvihane, the first party secretary and the father of modern Laos," said Norihiko Yamada of the Institute of Developing Economies at the Japan External Trade Organization.

The newly reshuffled leadership faces the challenging task of growing the economy while managing the debt owed to China.

Most dependent on China among the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Laos often sides with Beijing in international meetings.

The goal is to graduate from its least-developed-country status as soon as possible. However, the pandemic has decreased workers who are able to cross into neighboring countries such as Thailand, dealing a blow to the Laotian economy.

Born in the poor northern region of the country, Thongloun studied history and linguistics in the Soviet Union.

"I am often impressed by how carefully he observes others to assess their ability," a diplomatic source said. Now Thongloun's own ability to tap the right talent will be tested as he tries to chart a path for the country's growth.

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