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Reform-Minded Vietnam Ousts Conservative Leader

Asia: Development of a market economy is likely to quicken with the removal of Le Kha Phieu. Communist Party prepares to hold its national congress.


HANOI — Vietnam's top leader, Communist Party Secretary-General Le Kha Phieu, was removed from office Tuesday because of disenchantment with his conservative style, officials said.

The leading candidate to replace the 70-year-old party leader reportedly is Nong Duc Manh, a member of the ethnic Tay minority who would be expected to promote economic change and the development of a market economy more quickly than his predecessor.

The change comes as the Communist Party prepares to convene its top leadership at a national party congress, which is held once every five years. The meeting is expected to set the nation's course until 2006.

Phieu was ousted behind closed doors by the new, 150-member party Central Committee, which was elected this week in advance of the congress. The 1,170-member congress will convene Thursday and is expected to ratify the decision during four days of meetings.

As head of the National Assembly, Manh is thought to be more moderate and forward-looking than Phieu, who had strong support from the Communist leaders of neighboring China. Beijing sent a delegation here to push for Phieu's retention.

Manh, 60, a forestry engineer by training, would be the first member of an ethnic minority to hold the top party post. His appointment could help lessen tension in the Central Highlands, where members of hill tribes have clashed with authorities over the distribution of land.

U.S. Ambassador Douglas "Pete" Peterson said Tuesday before Phieu's ouster was made public that a change in the top leadership during the congress would not be a surprise.

Vietnam has made enough progress toward a market economy that public pressure is building for more rapid change, the ambassador said, and this is difficult for the party to ignore.

In an attempt to overcome food shortages and famine, the Communist Party in 1986 adopted an economic restructuring program known as doi moi, which allowed increased private enterprise and the beginnings of a market economy.

"The genie is out of the bottle," Peterson said. "I think they now have a constituency that has higher expectations, and therefore the leadership will attempt to fulfill those expectations."

The government recently prepared a plan with the World Bank and International Monetary Fund in which it promised to reduce trade restrictions and improve the state banking system in exchange for loans.

Peterson said he had been asked to review and comment on the policy plans that were drafted for the congress by party leaders.

The documents set forth a 10-year program of continued change that would help Vietnam assimilate into the global economy, he said, including overhauling the banking system, improving education, building political institutions and privatizing state-owned enterprises.

"It looks pretty good, actually," the ambassador said. "Nobody is quite sure how long all these things are going to take. It's certainly not just going to be a couple years."

Peterson said one of the keys to Vietnam's economic success will be a landmark trade agreement with the U.S., which was reached last year but has not yet taken effect. The Bush administration has not submitted it to Congress for ratification.

The Communist Party congresses are carefully scripted events, and it would be highly unusual for the members to depart from the program laid out for them by the top leadership. Party officials had privately predicted Phieu's ouster for days.

Prime Minister Phan Van Khai, who reportedly threatened to resign because of dissatisfaction with the slow pace of change in the country, will remain in his post, officials said. President Tran Duc Luong also is expected to retain his position.

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