Corruption and media exposure in Laos

The eminent Martin Stuart-Fox’s illuminating ‘Family Problems‘ analysis (recently plugged on New Mandala) rightly concludes that in Laos, the spectre of corruption is at the crux of all-to often fallible plans for national development. Governments attaining national development objectives while participating in moderate levels of corruption is relatively commonplace in the Asia-Pacific. However, Laos is saturated with corruption to such a degree that it mostly inhibits development. Corruption permeates Laos irrespective of the painting provided by the World Bank of progress with a seven plus percent figure bandied about. Indeed, one must ask seven percent for whom? Through a critique of sparsely available information on recent shifts in the upper echelons of the Lao government, Stuart-Fox shows that the Prime Ministerial change from Bouasone to Thongsing is representative of how corruption emanates contagiously from the top. Indeed, Stuart-Fox offers a poignant conclusion that there is little room for change in a system constantly greased by under the table behaviour. While it was not within the scope of Stuart-Fox’s article to consider how such a system might be altered to allow for greater effectiveness of national development plans, it is within the purview of New Mandala.

As Laos becomes increasingly and unavoidably exposed to other states, it is increasingly and unavoidably exposed to economic competition and evolving political systems in states it has close relations with. It is political reform that I wish to focus on here. Though not all states surrounding Laos are overt examples of political reform with regards to Burma, Cambodia and Vietnam, two of its neighbours can be considered interesting models for political evolution. In China and Thailand, information is widely available about political leadership. Both China and Thailand are grappling with surges in the availability of information that state censorship apparatus are stretched to control. Both Thai and Chinese governments are at least concerned to be seen with dealing with corruption within institutions. Significantly for Laos, it is China and Thailand that now constitute its largest trade relationships. What sort of, if any, influence the China-Thailand dynamic could have over Laos in terms of limiting corruption is a vast ambiguous question. But perhaps in this context, it is worth considering the views of Lao youths growing up in the information age.

New media is everywhere in Laos, and aside from a doctoral thesis entitled Urban Cosmonauts: The Global Explorations of the New Generation from Post-Revolutionary Laos by Warren Mayes, consideration of its impact seems glaringly absent from the many analyses of Laos and its development. Of course, it is natural here to mention the next generation of Lao less haunted by the specter of corruption. Youths will see and read about the political chaos occurring in Thailand. Lao youths will see the ever expanding influence of ‘Made in China’. Lao youths will be aware they’re going to get a great new train service from Boten to Vientiane, but will be disappointed that they’ll be unable to afford a ticket. They’ll see tourists jumping aboard to head up to Xishuangbana and will feel strongly about why they can’t go too. Lao youths will be wondering about their own political system, and perhaps be angry enough to demand more from it and leadership. Lao youths will be inheriting Laos long after it flaps out of Least Developed Country status. Maybe I am expecting too much. But new media is not limited to Lao youths, and what sort of influence it has over the wider population that has influence at present doesn’t seem understood by us, out here, donating to what could derisively be labeled the corruption trough. Increasingly there is English language media covering the development of Laos. With English becoming more widely spoken in Laos, these articles are sure to have an impact on the self-awareness and identity of Lao citizens. So with this in mind, what would Lao youths with some command of English make of recent developments?

The New Year has started eventfully for Laos. On 6 January 2011, Vang Pao, leader of the Hmong guerilla forces throughout the Lao Civil War and in exile, passed on aged 81 in Fresno, California. Obituaries have tended to reflect superfluously on his numerous achievements interwoven with brief Cold War contextualisation. One mourner, the Mayor of Fresno, even commented that Vang Pao was “father of a nation.” Contrastingly, the present Lao leadership spawned from the recognised “father of the nation”, Kaysone Phomvihane, made no comment on Vang Pao’s death. How many Lao youths have heard of Vang Pao? My presumption is not many. The Economist vapidly asserted that leadership was busier with the Lao Stock Exchange that opened for trading on the auspicious 11/1/11. The Economist identified that it’s ironic that Vang Pao died a week before Laos affirmed itself as a subscriber to market-led growth. Unfortunately this irony would be lost on those youths who ought to have a broader understanding of their national history.

What are the views of Lao youth (at least, the few that care for such banality!) on their new stock exchange? How would they perceive this in relation to national development? There are, at present, only two companies listed on the stock exchange which are Banque Pour Le Commerce Extérieur Lao (BCEL – the national foreign exchange bank) and Electricite du Laos (EdL – the national energy company). Clifford McCoy reports in the Asia Times that

Twenty companies were initially shortlisted to be included on the LSX. Fifteen of these were state-owned and the rest were joint-ventures between state and private enterprises. To be listed, companies have to turn a profit for at least a year, demonstrate transparency and sound management, and have a sound business plan. It’s unclear which of those requirements the other 18 companies initially scheduled to list on the LSX failed to meet.

Of course, the very first two publicly listed companies reflect the natural resource export dependency of the Lao economy. Setting standards for listing like making an annual profit and the often heard hollow words of ‘demonstrating transparency’ and ‘sound management’ could give impetuous for consistent entry of companies into the Lao Stock Exchange, but what are the chances of ‘transparency’ and ‘sound management’ being given weight by the elites that straddle the thin line between private business and state operated enterprise? There needs, as McCoy concludes, to be political reform before the hope that the new stock exchange will have a significant impact on economic growth and trickle-down effects for the welfare of the greater Lao public. Political reform towards the World Bank’s ‘good governance’ definition is not a high priority for the current generation of Lao leadership as Stuart-Fox’s article demonstrates. However, this doesn’t mean the next generation will necessarily share the same prerogatives.

This is because preventing corruption through political reform in Laos will come through greater exposure for Lao to articles like the one Martin Stuart-Fox wrote and to articles about their evolving regional geopolitical situation. Consequently, the recent deluge of Lao related articles all over the Internet are the avenues, the clefts in those cliffs, for the present and future Lao public to take a greater participatory role in governance. Martin Stuart-Fox refers to corruption as a “leakage”, but couldn’t the leakage of media into Laos be similarly corrosive to the present governance apparatus? If only those articles could be translated into Lao…