Defense Chief, Lao Officials Die in Crash

The Lao defense minister was among more than a dozen people reported killed early Saturday when a military aircraft crashed in the northern part of the country. Analysts now see a major reshuffle within the governing Communist party.

Local television showed images of smoldering debris from the Ukrainian-made AN-74 aircraft after it crashed into a forest on approach to landing in the northern Laos province of Xiangkhouang, 470 kilometers from Vientiane.

Defense Minister Major General Douangchay Phichit, who was also a deputy prime minister and member of the powerful inner circle politburo of the Lao Communist Party is among the 17 dead.

Other senior officials to perish include the minister of public security and the mayor of Vientiane, as well as family members who were traveling to attend a ceremony and reception. 

A rescue worker makes his way past the wreckage of an air force plane at its crash site near Nadee village, in Xiang Khouang province in the north of the country on May 17, 2014. /Reuters A rescue worker makes his way past the wreckage of an air force plane at its crash site near Nadee village, in Xiang Khouang province in the north of the country on May 17, 2014. /Reuters
News of the tragedy was initially confirmed through the Thai Foreign Ministry which has long-standing close ties with neighboring Laos.

The tragedy comes just seven months after a Laos Airlines domestic aircraft crashed in southern Champasak province claiming the lives of 49 passengers and crew. The official report into the Lao Aviation ATR-72 turboprop crash is due to be released in the coming months.

Panitan Wattanayagorn, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University, says the crash adds to concerns about aviation safety in Laos.

"Lao aviation safety has been problematic for many years," he noted. "And this just confirms another problem they are not able to fix or solve yet. Although in the past two years they have brought in external experts to help their aviation industry and also military air force (personnel). But still the problems persist."

Laos-based analysts told VOA the tragedy marks a major blow to the ruling Communist Party. Defense Minister Douangchay was also seen as having close ties with neighboring Vietnam. The Lao government has long juggled diplomatic and economic relations between China and Vietnam.

Carl Thayer, a defense analyst with Australia's University of New South Wales, says following the accident a major reshuffle within the government is expected. He says Douangchay was a powerful player within the politburo. 

"[Douangchay] is one of the most important political elites in Laos. The military plays an extraordinarily powerful role in that country -- both officially and then through the network of retired generals that inhabit the upper echelons of the party," Thayer explained. " Who becomes the defense minister comes from a very tiny circle anyway so it is going to be one of them that the insiders know so it's not going to be a surprise person that's going to change policy drastically."

But Thayer says while a reshuffle will take place, he does not foresee any instability within the closely knit Communist government that has ruled Laos since 1975. Nor, he says, will the already close working relations between Laos and neighbors Vietnam and China likely change.

VOA News / May 19, 2014 08:07 KST