The house is impressive if not remarkable or tasteful. It’s of fortress proportions and looks out of place among the older, more humble riverside homes south of Vientiane. A concrete access road and car park have replaced the dusty, potholed tracks by which people got to their houses previously.
The Asian symbols of virility and power — rearing charging horses — decorate the retaining walls. Riverside land was until recently inexpensive. Now it is hot property; hotter as having an ex-Prime Minister, albeit now an ex-prime mister, as a neighbour has a certain je ne sais quoi. And he is about to move in.
Vientiane gossip has it that a Chinese business group bought the land and built the house in return for unnamed favours. While this could not be confirmed, it is probable. In the absence of independent media, those who watch Laos politics tend to tune into the undercurrents of people’s beer-fed discussions. This being Laos, politics is discussed in whispers and with the odd nervous look over the shoulder, indicting that there is still little that is democratic about the Laos People’s Democratic Republic.
Before 2010 had expired, the Laos press announced somberly that Prime Minister Bouasone Bouphavanh had suddenly resigned. His term was not expected to expire for a few more months. In Stalinist states such as Lao, stability and predictability are desirable so this err, resignation was a bit of a shock.
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So did he jump or was he pushed?
A Laos journalist soon phoned to ask me if I was going to report on the Prime Minster’s impeachment. An interesting choice of words and more indicative of what was happening behind the face wall of fixed smiles. But while the US tends to make these things grandstand events, the Laos process of evidence gathering is much more subtle.
Maybe the house is part of or key to the story. Certainly by all accounts the horse references were apt.
Many additional adjacent house sites were taken over and cleared, the wooden and brick traditional houses with their exterior kitchens falling into piles of wood and bricks and carted away. A lively breakfast stall with its elegant woman owner, who every morning would serve strong Lao coffee and noodles, her two noisy poodles and retinue of male diners are all gone, leaving a palpable social vacuum.
While the baby-faced PM with his rimless glasses and dark suits was known as a party boy, in that he supported the Politburo, he was better known as a playboy. His philandering was so well known Vientiane residents sniggered that all the additional land bought and cleared around his palatial home was for his many mia noi (minor wives) and his increasingly rapacious family.
His wife, Madame Rumly, had sued for a very public divorce. She was a force to be reckoned with by all accounts, and it was thought that she demanded an unseemly decent share in the spoils of office.
It is said that his womanising and financial irresponsibility led to his downfall. While diplomatic and development aid sources refused to comment on record, there are many Vientiane insiders who were happy to talk as long as they weren’t named.
A Laos literary critic agreed that Bouasone’s brazen behaviour lost him support … “and he spent more money than he had. He could not manage the state budget, so many were worried. He was a known playboy. You cannot have a man like that as head of a government.”
He may have not been able to manage the state budget but Bouphavanh was a successful businessman, owning sawmills all over Laos. Despite making the annual anti-illegal-logging speeches, the splendid old trees of Laos continued to fall, and his sawmills were ready to turn them into timber. While in Sayaboury we passed mills that were known to be owned by Bouphavanh.
A environmental consultant flying over the Nam Theun 2 dam from Nkahon Pranomh late last year was struck by two things. “I looked down and saw the water coming down the race was yellow, meaning there is a lot of iron coming out. Bad news for the dam. But then I saw two large boats on the reservoir, which is after all like a small inland sea. I thought that someone had taken out a licence to run a tour boat company but when I got the pictures home I realised the boats were towing log rafts. Big old trees, not the residue saplings left in the pond.” After chatting to others he was told the boats belonged to Bouphavanh and the local governor and he would be wise to shut up.
Others of course put it down to Pro Vietnamese versus Pro Chinese factions, but most agree that other than keeping the disliked and feared standing Deputy-Prime Minister Somsavat Lengsavad out of the PM’s position, that it was the personal not the political that got him. After all Lengsavad himself is not known for his probity, and reports of him stalking women in his car are not uncommon in Vientiane.
The National Assembly it is said were embarrassed that their Prime Mister provided salacious gossip at diplomatic cocktail parties.
The new Prime Minister, Thongsing Thammavong has been variously described as calm, boring, uninspiring and a good listener. A perfect foil and strong message. He was the Minister for Information and Culture, responsible for keeping a tight rein on the arts and media in Laos. The street pundits insist he is less corrupt and while not being a good leader, may be a behind the scenes strategist to reduce the power of the cliques that virtually run Laos as their fiefdom.
What is interesting is the role of the National Assembly. It is said that Pany Yathortou, one of the few non-Lao Loum in the assembly, along with other women members, led the downhill attack against Bouphavanh, something the gender and development specialists might take note of while they charge Laos women with having little power. The National Assembly is becoming increasingly assertive and not simply playing a supine rubber stamp role to the Politburo. It has taken up issues of corruption and last year called for a ban on casino development due to rising social problems.
They have a hot line and post box so the public can anonymously report their concerns. The National Assembly it seems is flexing its muscles and taking on the role of the people’s body with increasing seriousness.
The Party Congress starting this week should be an interesting affair.