The Lao government has disciplined more than 200 officials involved in taking bribes or embezzlement in recent months as part of a bid to crackdown on rampant corruption in the Southeast Asian nation, but few have been held criminally accountable for their actions.
Earlier this week, authorities in Xiengkhouang province “re-educated” 16 state officials, demoted two, and warned another nine after they were found to have embezzled “several million dollars,” according to state media reports.
An official from the province’s Khoun district told RFA’s Lao Service on Friday that “some of the officials accepted bribes from businesses in return for helping them to illegally transport timber to the capital Vientiane,” speaking on condition of anonymity.
Another official from Xiengkhouang, who declined to provide their name, said others in the group of 27 “signed documents requesting funds from the government to build a new office building, but after the building was completed, the finance department checked the expenses and found that they had withdrawn funds that were unaccounted for.”
Reports of the corruption in Xiengkhouang came weeks after Khampiane Panyavong, deputy director of the human resources department of Xayaburi Province announced that 102 provincial government workers had been disciplined for “violating the rules and regulations of the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party.”
Khampiane said that 37 of the 102 officials had committed “economic crimes or acts of corruption,” while the rest were involved in other crimes that included drug trafficking and property theft.
Their crimes had led to losses of U.S. $25 million over the past year, he said.
A member of the provincial inspection agency told RFA last week that of the 102 officials, “some have been suspended, some fired, and others disciplined according to state law.”
In April, 19 party members and state employees in Savannakhet province were dismissed for the embezzlement of state funds and 21 faced discipline for involvement in the trade of illegal timber, according to a report by state media, which said their combined crimes had caused losses of U.S. $5.4 million.
According to a provincial official, authorities had discovered the corruption after acting on public tips.
“We followed up on people’s complaints with investigations, and then reported them to the provincial party committee,” the official told RFA, adding that last year the province also sent a dozen state workers to the prosecutor’s office for graft, but they have yet to be tried.
The discipline of state workers in Savannakhet followed several high-profile corruption cases in March, including the dismissal of 18 employees of Attapeu province, who a staff member with the provincial human resources department told RFA were among a group of 45 allegedly involved in embezzlement and property theft, and the warning of seven state employees—including the deputy provincial governor—in Vientiane province for their involvement in the disappearance of U.S. $500,000.
Also in March, the inspection department of the central government’s Ministry of Public Works and Transport reported that it had uncovered 1,002 cases of state employees involved in corruption in 2018, mostly related to infrastructure development projects such as road construction and repairs throughout the country.
Around 850 workers were disciplined, 61 charged with economic crimes, and the remainder sentenced to various jail terms.
“Our department is inspecting and auditing more effectively now, and hopefully we will be able to reduce corruption and fix all the leaks,” an official from the ministry told RFA at the time.
Lao Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith has vowed to tackle graft since coming to power in 2016, but the government has made few little headway with the problem, which is widespread due to weak laws and lack of enforcement by authorities.
Transparency International, a Berlin-based global anticorruption coalition, ranked Laos 132 among 180 countries on its Corruption Perceptions Index for 2018 and gave the country a score of 29 on a scale in which 0 is highly corrupt and 100 is very clean.
The group said corruption remained endemic among most of the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), of which Laos is a member state.
Corruption exists at every level of government in Laos and is difficult to uproot because it has become part of the country’s culture, a Vientiane-based source with knowledge of the issue recently told RFA.
“Everybody knows that there is a lot of corruption in the country, but nobody sees any state employees being jailed for it,” the source said.