In April of 2016, after the 10th Party Congress had been concluded, it had become evident that Thongloun Sisoulith would become the next Prime Minister of Laos. Shortly after taking office, Prime Minister Sisoulith embarked on a most ambitious quest, as did his predecessors, to steer the small nation of 6.5 million towards the path of further economic development.
After successfully hosting the ASEAN Summits earlier this year (a feat praised by much of the international community), the Sisoulith-led Government with the guidance of President and Party Chief Bounyang Vorachit, promised the people among other things, the streamlining of government procedures, a tough stance against illegal logging, drugs and corruption, and increased revenue collection. As expected, newspapers, television, radio, magazines, and other media outlets scurried to get the news out about the new leadership’s sincere attempt to solve some of the longstanding social ills that had plagued the country.
Conventional state-owned and private media generated a fair bit of buzz in the country’s top officials, including many professional and competent ministers. Many people were convinced of the new government’s pledges, while others remained skeptical. This skepticism was testament to the fact that despite copious positive news coverage of the government’s activities, there has always been some disconnect between the people of Laos and its leaders – a rift between the ruler and the ruled that has been brought about by a mostly-positive media coverage of top leaders. This phenomenon has been the case since the local media has existed in Laos.
All this changed when the government decided to open a Facebook account.
Claiming to be an official government page, the Support Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith Facebook Page has over 65,000 followers, posts multiple times a day, averages over two-eight thousand likes per post, and earns several hundreds (sometimes even thousands of shares), with an estimated reach of about 500,000-1,000,000 individuals. For the small nation of Laos, this number is unprecedented, given the Internet penetration rate of only 13-14 percent, by some estimates.
What is more interesting is the number of popular online news websites and social media-based entities that are writing about the Prime Minister and depicting him in a most favorable light. People began to see pictures of him holding an umbrella by himself, wearing modest sneakers, braving poverty-stricken conditions, making intimate contact with the people, standing and smiling next to his wife, shaking hands and deliberating with world leaders, appearing next to students, and in a variety of attires (soldier uniform, graduation gown, religious outfit, ordinary clothing, national dress). And the people are loving it. They cannot get enough of it. Facebook posts were teeming with comments praising PM Sisoulith’s efforts, cheering him on as if he were a messiah that had been promised.
This foray into social media has spurred PM Sisoulith’s “approval ratings” and launched him to celebrity status. It is clear the Government is enjoying a very real political and moral legitimacy.
Of course, it should be noted that social media is a technological platform that enables leaders to achieve a sense of intimacy with the people of which conventional media platforms could never dream. It is precisely because it permits an open-ended conversation not only between the Lao people and its leaders but also amongst Lao people themselves. This type of expression has been seen as needed and appreciated in countries such as Laos where self-censorship is broadly practiced.
The brilliant, coordinated public relations campaign to depict a more human side of the Prime Minister not only generated a huge buzz around his policies and actions but also engendered an unprecedented level of intimacy with the people never before experienced. His portrayal as a holistic leader – tall and diplomatic yet down-to-earth – serves as a stark contrast to the typical public images bestowed upon the heads of previous government administrations. However, this is not to say that the people had not been supportive of previous governments. And it would be a mistake to claim that prior Lao leaders have not effected positive changes to the country.
But it is only during PM Sisoulith’s government that we see such a visible moral, public support as evidenced by the slews of positive online written feedback. Ultimately, social media allows for a civic participation and expression that the government should take into account.
Today, PM Sisoulith holds the title of the most followed Lao leader on social media. While other nations conduct polls and focus groups, the Lao Government’s legitimacy, it seems, can be seen by its number of ‘likes.’
Although there is fervent dispute over social media’s influence on the political forum’s integrity, it is now an undeniable influence that no government could ignore.
Written by: Laotian Times Guest Columnist
Photo courtesy of Support Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith FB Page