Thongloun Sisoulith has served as a deputy prime minister of Laos since 2001 and concurrently as minister of foreign affairs since 2006. Born in Hua Phan province bordering on Vietnam and China, he studied in the Soviet Union and is married to the adopted daughter of former revolutionary leader Phoumi Vongvichit. Thongloun’s earlier positions include deputy foreign minister, minister of labor and social welfare, and a member of the National Assembly. The recently concluded congress of the ruling Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP) elected him as the third-ranked member of the Politburo.
Why is he in the news?
Thongloun in late January was named as the new prime minister of Laos and is expected to take his post in April after National Assembly elections. Outgoing prime minister Thongsing Thammavong announced at the recent congress that he was stepping down.
Thongloun’s elevation to the prime minister post will be critical as Laos prepares for a year of heightened diplomatic activity. Laos is serving as the 2016 chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which means Vientiane will host the East Asia Summit in September which will be attended by President Barack Obama and the leaders of China and Japan.
What can we expect from him?
While many commentators look for signs of pro-Vietnam or anti-China leanings in the new government, Thongloun has been regarded as a relatively neutral leader in the Politburo. Addressing the UN General Assembly in 2013, he emphasized efforts to promote close ties with the international community. While maintaining high-level exchanges with China, he has also sought increased cooperation with Vietnam, Laos’ ASEAN neighbors, and the United States. He was the first senior Lao official to visit the United States back in 2010, and recently met one-on-one with U.S. secretary of state John Kerry on a visit to Vientiane to discuss areas of bilateral and multilateral cooperation.
Under Thongloun’s leadership, there is optimism that Laos will avoid a repeat of Cambodia’s infamous tenure as ASEAN chair in 2012. Chinese influence was evident in Cambodia’s refusal to allow discussion of disputes in the South China Sea at a leaders summit, resulting in ASEAN’s inability to issue a joint communiqué for the first time in 45 years. Kerry said after his recent visit that Lao officials were “very clear” that they want “a unified ASEAN,” want “maritime rights protected,” and want to “avoid militarization” and “avoid the conflict” in the South China Sea.