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Radio Free Asia

Laos Appoints New Electricity Chief Amid Growing Anger Over High Prices

2020-06-19 -- Laos has appointed a new managing director of the state-owned Electricite du Laos power company, replacing the former director amid rising anger in the country over high rates for electricity in spite of growing levels of unemployment because of business closings to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

Power prices have become a sensitive issue in Laos, where people who were already poor before the COVID-19 pandemic slammed the economy now chafe at high rates in a country building billion-dollar hydropower dams on its major rivers to sell electricity to richer neighboring countries.

Chanthabon Souk Aloun, a former director of the Planning and Cooperation Department of the Ministry of Energy and Mines, was named to his new post on June 13, an official at Electricite du Laos confirmed to RFA this week, calling the appointment routine.

"The leadership has changed because the former director reached retirement age in 2018," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "But the Ministry asked him to stay on for another two years, as the power company was being restructured."

The change took place at a time when the company was being criticized for charging high prices for power usage, though, the official said, adding, "And this has created a mistaken impression–that the change in directors was a response by the state to company mismanagement."

A resident of the capital Vientiane meanwhile voiced optimism over the leadership change, but said much will depend on how the new director carries out his responsibilities.

"For better or worse, it will all depend on him. If he works for the country and the people, things will be better. On the other hand, if he just works for himself and his cronies, everything will be the same as before," he said.

In 2019 Laos ranked 130 out of 180 nations in the annual Corruption Perceptions Index of the graft watchdog Transparency International.

Call to lower prices

Many in Laos have been calling on the government in recent weeks to lower prices for electricity as the country enters its warmest months, with some saying their power costs have doubled and are still continuing to rise.

"We want the government to lower the price of power. It's too high," another resident of Vientiane said, speaking to RFA on June 19. "We can't pay our bills because our salaries are too low."

"Every household has seen higher power bills," another Vientiane resident said. "I used to pay 800,000 kip [U.S. $89] a month, but now I pay almost double, and I don't know why."

"I don't know how they calculate the rates. Everybody is complaining. My household uses no more power than before. I would like to see lower rates because I'm not working right now," he said.

Some Lao householders meanwhile suspect fraud in the higher rates they have been charged.

Power company employees in the past have recorded incorrect or inflated amounts of power used by customers, Khen Thepvongsa–head of the power operations department in Vientiane–admitted in an interview with the Lao Pattana newspaper on May 19

Electricite du Laos now has strict measures in place to deal with wrongdoing, though, with a reduction in pay resulting from a first occurrence, followed by termination of employment on a second offense, Khen Thepvongsa said.

New pricing policy promised

Lao residents this week cautiously welcomed news of a restructuring of pricing policy over the next five years to reduce fees over the next five years for those using 151 to 461 kilowatt hours per month, with the exact rate of reduction to be determined by the Ministry of Energy and Mines.

"I'll be happy if they can reduce our monthly electricity fees," a villager in Vientiane province's Van Vieng district told RFA on June 19.

"Last month, my bill was over one million kip [U.S. $110.91], and it was about 8,000 to 9,000 kip the month before that. I don't know what it will be this month," he said.

A restaurant owner in Kham Mouane province's Tha Khek district meanwhile voiced skepticism over the promised change, asking what the government will do to keep its word.

"Can they really do that?" he asked. "We still don't know the truth."

"My electric bills are more expensive than before, even though my restaurant has been closed and I'm staying at home," he said. "I used to ask the authorities about this, but they had no answers for me."

Reached for comment, an official at the communications department of Electricite du Laos declined to provide a date by which the new pricing policy will take effect, saying only that the matter is still under study.

Reported and translated by Max Avary and Sidney Khotpanya for RFA's Lao Service. Written in English by Richard Finney.

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