China looks set to benefit from the deaths in Laos of a group of senior government officials in an air crash on May 17. The group -- four of Laos’ 15 politburo members -- was killed when a military Antonov AN74TK-300 crashed on descent to an army commemoration ceremony near the Plain of Jars in Laos’ north-eastern Xiengkhouang province.
The government has said the air crash was a consequence of a technical fault. There is, however, a persistent if unofficial claim that the plane was hit by a surface-to-air missile, following eyewitnesses reports of a loud explosion before the plane crashed.
Among the 17 killed in the crash was a rising political star, Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Major General Douangchay Phichit. Also killed were the Public Security Minister, Thongban Sengaphon, and Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP) propaganda chief and secretary of the LPRP Central Committee, Cheuang Sombounkanh. The group was at the core of a hardline, pro-Vietnam faction in Laos’ "communist" government. Popular Vientiane mayor and politburo member Soukan Mahalat was also killed.
Although nominally communist, Lao politics now functions primarily as a means of allocating patronage and opportunities to make money. Laos remains the world’s third-largest producer of opium and a prime source of illegal logging and is often described as a narco-kleptocracy. Corruption Watch lists it as among the world’s most corrupt countries.
Vietnam has, since 1975, been deeply influential in Lao politics, in particular through official party and military-to-military links. However, China has been increasingly asserting influence in what has at times been called the "keystone state" of mainland south-east Asia.
Sources in Laos are making connections between the plane crash and another suspicious death -- that of deputy defence minister Major General Sanyahak Phomvihane in the middle of last year. Phomvihane was the son of Kaysone Phomvihane, head of LPRP from 1955 until 1992 and prime minister from 1975 until 1991. The elder Phomvihane was very close to his Vietnamese colleagues.
The younger Phomvihane, also pro-Vietnam, was officially said to have died within a couple of days of contracting dengue fever. However, dengue is rarely fatal when first contracted, especially for a fit man.
Phomvihane’s death has in turn been seen within the context of the resignation "for family reasons", in 2010, of then-prime minister Bouasone Bouphavanh. Bouphavanh, who was pushed out of office due to excessive personal and family corruption, also led the Laos government’s then ascendant pro-China faction.
In the competition for strategic and economic influence in Laos, Vietnam retains an historical advantage and strong links to, if not control over, the Lao government. However, China dwarfs Vietnam in every other sense. As a consequence, when Laos’ pro-Vietnam leaders pass from the scene, Laos moves closer to China.
Following China’s set-back with the ousting of Bouphavanh, the suspicious death of Phomivane took Laos a step closer to China. The recent deaths of the expected next president and other key figures in the hardline pro-Vietnam faction, China’s position in Laos looks stronger.