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Laos Limits High-Ranking Government Officials To Only 2 State-Owned Vehicles

Source: Vientiane Times

A new decree from Laos’ Prime Ministerial Office further limits personal use of state-owned vehicles among high-ranking officials, the latest effort by Vientiane to root out government corruption.

Decree 599 amends Decree 15, which was issued in September 2021 and forbade officials from using state-owned vehicles after they retire, a popular move among Laotians at that time.

The latest order applies to current office holders. It limits first-tier officials, including the party secretary, president, the chair of the National Assembly, the prime minister, and members of the Politburo, to two state-owned vehicles — one sedan and one SUV — each. It also limits their gasoline allowance to 200 liters (52.8 U.S. liquid gallons) per month.

Officials in the second-tier, like the vice president and vice-chair of the assembly, are allowed two vehicles and 180 liters (47.5 gallons), while third-tier officials such as vice-governors get only one car and 120 liters (31.7 gallons).

“Now, we’re taking inventory of all the state vehicles in the country,” an official of the Finance Ministry told RFA’s Lao Service. This source and others quoted in this report requested anonymity for safety reasons.

“It’s going to take a long time to complete the inventory. We’re counting all kinds of state-owned vehicles including pick-up trucks and vans. The high-ranking officials are not allowed to use these vehicles anymore,” the official said. 

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The new decree is the part of Prime Minister Phankham Viphavanh’s “belt-tightening policy,” according to the official. Laos has been trying to very publicly rein in corruption and excess over the past few years.

“On Aug. 30, the Party Central Committee returned six vehicles to the Prime Minister’s Office,” the official said. 

“The party wanted to show a good example to other departments and high-ranking officials that they too should return their excess vehicles, but the Prime Minister’s Office needs more cooperation.”

The official said that the government did not demand the return of excess vehicles last year because of the pandemic. Now that Laos is reopening, they will begin the process, but they need more government agencies to cooperate. He said that some departments say they cannot return all the vehicles deemed to be in excess because they are needed for work.

Several Lao citizens told RFA that they think their leaders have too many cars.

“All members of the Politburo and Party Central Committee have five vehicles each, not just two, and each vehicle consumes 200 liters of gas every month. So, the prime minister should be serious about this problem. He should reclaim the excess vehicles right away,” a Vientiane resident told RFA. 

“Taking back the state vehicles should be a national priority. All leaders at the national level and provincial level should comply with the decree and return the excess vehicles to the state. [It] will save a lot of money.”

The abuse of state-owned vehicles has been a problem for years, another Lao citizen in the southern province of Champassak told RFA.

“All leaders of all levels have too many vehicles. Many of them have more than two and they haven’t returned any of them,” the Champassak source said. “Many high-ranking officials at both the central and provincial levels use their state-owned vehicles for personal use. It’s been like this for years. I’ve heard about reclaiming the cars, but nobody so far has returned them.” 

In the northern province of Luang Prabang, only 10 provincial government officials had returned a single vehicle each, as of Sept. 1, an official there told RFA.

“Most of the department heads still keep their excess cars and don’t show any intention of returning them,” the Luang Prabang official said.

The Prime Minister’s Office resells the vehicles it received in previous reclamations, an official of the office told RFA..

“We’ve sold out on all the luxury cars, like the BMW and Mercedes we got back in 2020 and 2021. As for the vehicles that will be returning this time around, we’ll sell them to the government or party officials at reduced prices.”

Widespread corruption 

During the Sept. 5 episode of the RFA Lao Service’s Weekly News Talk Show, several listeners called in to explain why corruption is so widespread in Laos despite the government trying to eliminate it.

“Corruption is still rampant in Laos because only small fish are punished, and the big fish aren’t. Law enforcement, more specifically enforcement of anti-corruption law, is too weak,” one caller, who requested anonymity, said.

Another caller blamed Laos’ current economic woes on corruption. Laos has billions of dollars of debt that it needs to repay each year to lenders in China, Thailand and Vietnam, officials have said.

“Every government department and every project the government invests in are underwater, heavily indebted,” the second caller said.

“Corruption has been a problem within the Lao government for years and it can’t be solved. Up to now, I’ve never seen any high-ranking officials of the party and the government being punished for corruption. I’ve only heard only low-ranking officials are fired or disciplined,” the second caller said.

A third caller blamed the country’s massive debts on corruption, saying, “ As mentioned in the Parliament, the budget is leaking at all levels, from the bottom to the top. The budget is supposed to be used for the development of the country. When we have no money, the government borrows more and more money from other countries.

“Many Laotians don’t trust the government anymore when it comes to cracking down on corruption because Laos is governed by a single political party to which all members of the government Cabinet and the National Assembly belong,” the third caller said. 

“All they can do is to punish the small fish, then let the big fish swim freely.”