Viet Cong veteran who became prime minister of Vietnam and promoted the free market
12 Jun 2008
Kiet: his open style contrasted with that of his predecessors Photo: REUTERS
Vo Van Kiet, the former Vietnamese prime minister who died on June 11, fought as a Viet Cong Communist guerrilla against the American-backed government of South Vietnam in the Vietnam War, but retained a pragmatic belief in the free market.
After the war, in which he lost his first wife and two children to American bombing (their bodies have never been found), he became party secretary of Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) where, in the years immediately after the Communist victory of 1975, he quietly defied hard-line official policy by resisting efforts to bring private enterprise under state control and working with officials and businesses associated with the defeated regime.
His senior colleagues in Hanoi, meanwhile, were hell-bent on imposing a Marxist-Leninist system on the country. It did not work. Collectivisation turned the country from a food exporter to an importer; by 1986 inflation was at 600 per cent and Vietnam had become one of the IMF’s casualty patients.
Kiet’s experiments with encouraging private enterprise in Saigon eventually persuaded the Communist Party at a national level to adopt market reforms – the doi moi (“renewal”) reforms – for the whole country in 1986.
They took time to work through, but in 1991 the country won praise from the IMF for its “exemplary adjustments”.
As prime minister from 1991 to 1997 Kiet presided over a period of rapid growth and foreign investment, and strove to normalise relations with the rest of the world.
In 1994 the United States, under President Clinton, lifted its trade embargo against Vietnam and the following year restored diplomatic ties.
In 1995 Vietnam joined the Association of South-East Asian Nations, which had been set up in the late 1960s partly to oppose Communism’s advance in Asia.
Kiet, originally named Phan Van Hoa, was born into a peasant family at Trung Hep village in the Mekong Delta, then part of French Indochina, on November 23 1922.
He joined the anti-French Viet Minh guerrillas aged 18 when he fled into the jungle after an abortive local uprising. Later, under the nom de guerre Sau Dan, Kiet emerged as a key player in the Viet Cong insurgency in South Vietnam.
After serving as party secretary in Saigon from 1976, in 1982 he joined the Politburo and became vice-chairman of the council of ministers in Hanoi, but lost the job to the more hard-line Do Muoi three months later.
In 1987 he was appointed first deputy prime minister of Vietnam and became acting prime minister in 1988 after the sudden death of Pham Hung.
As prime minister, Kiet travelled widely to drum up investment and forge new diplomatic and trade ties, his open, accessible style providing a refreshing contrast with the stony-faced apparatchiks who preceded him.
He negotiated closer ties with other Asian countries, developing a personal rapport with the former Singaporean leader Lee Kuan Yew, who visited Vietnam several times to offer advice.
He promoted seminars by outside experts for people’s committees in different industries to learn about capitalism and fought an uphill battle against corruption and smuggling; a series of high-ranking officials, including a former energy minister, were sacked or jailed for corruption.
Kiet stepped down as prime minister in 1997 to be replaced by his former deputy, Phan Van Khai, but he remained an outspoken reformist, arguing for a free press and dialogue with dissidents.
A keen tennis player and passionate football fan, he was said to have been responsible in the last year of his premiership for persuading the English footballer, Colin Murphy, to coach the national team.
He married, secondly, Phan Luong Cam, a scientist who described her husband in an interview as a forgetful romantic with a passion for a particularly pungent type of dried fish.