New Laos leaders take office as communists welcome world

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04/21/2019  —  Laos’ new leaders took office Tuesday, according to state media, as the secretive communist nation prepares for a period of unusually frenetic diplomacy culminating in a landmark visit by a US President.
 
One of Asia’s least developed nations, Laos has been tightly ruled by its communist leaders since the 1975 end of the Vietnam War, which saw it blanketed by bombs in secret missions led by the CIA.
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Leadership reshuffles take place every five years in carefully choreographed gatherings by the country’s politburo and rubber stamp National Assembly.
 
In late January, vice president Bounnhang Vorachith was elected to the presidency and party secretary general, replacing 79-year-old Choummaly Sayasone.
 
Thongloun Sisoulith, a Soviet Union-educated politburo member and former foreign minister, was elected Prime Minister.
 
Both apparatchiks were officially appointed to their positions on Tuesday at a ceremony in Vientiane, the state-run Lao News Agency reported.
 
The internal operations of the powerful party are largely kept secret under a regime that bars a free press, rarely grants access to international media and severely restricts freedom of expression.
 
But analysts predict the current politburo is unlikely to loosen the government’s repressive grip or open its economy.
 
A foreign diplomat in Vientiane told AFP they expected “no major changes”.
 
“The speeches from Bounnhang and Thongloun promised the same policies. Thongloun appears to be a good choice in terms of Laos balancing its foreign relations,” the diplomat said, requesting anonymity.
 
Laos is currently chair of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations regional bloc, hosting a slew of diplomatic meetings that could open the hermetic nation up to greater scrutiny.