Laos' secretive communist rulers have chosen Vice President Bounnhang Vorachith to steer the single-party government as it assumes a year-long chairmanship of the ASEAN regional bloc. Bounnhang, 78, was selected for the top position of party secretary-general, state media reported on Friday, replacing 79-year-old Choummaly Sayasone, who stepped down after a decade in power. Analysts predicted Bounnhang would be awarded the top spot, and say he is unlikely to change the government's repressive status quo. "He is a party loyalist, old-time revolutionary and wily politician, who is not going to change course -- or change anything, for that matter," said Martin Stuart-Fox, a Laos historian and retired Australian professor. Laos' political leaders have tightly controlled the rural Southeast Asian nation since 1975, when communist revolutionaries overthrew the monarchy several decades after the end of French colonial rule. This week nearly 700 party members joined the five-yearly congress in the capital Vientiane to approve a mostly male central committee and 11-person politburo, the key governing bodies of the resource-rich country. The internal operations of the powerful party are largely kept secret under a regime that bars a free press and severely restricts freedom of expression. But as this year's chair for the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations regional bloc, Laos will host a slew of diplomatic meetings that could open the hermitic nation up to greater scrutiny. Though for many years neighbouring Vietnam was the most powerful foreign player in Laos, China has poured money into the country recently, becoming its largest foreign investor in 2014. Yet Stuart-Fox said the new politburo was unlikely to lean too heavily towards either communist neighbour. "Laos will continue to balance its relations with China and Vietnam, and try to avoid taking sides," he told AFP. Washington is also increasingly courting the isolated state as part of President Barack Obama's so-called "pivot" to Asia. Obama will be the first US president to visit Laos when he attends an ASEAN summit in the capital this summer. US Secretary of State John Kerry is also scheduled to stop in Vientiane to meet with the country's leaders next week. Kerry will "affirm support for Laos as this year's ASEAN chair, and express continued US interest in a close bilateral relationship," the US State Department said. Rights groups have urged Kerry to highlight the Laos government's human rights abuses when he visits, including the disappearance of prominent community activist Sombath Somphone, who was last seen being stopped at a police checkpoint in 2012.
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