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Last Updated: Monday, 1 September, 2003, 13:56 GMT 14:56 UK
Vietnam economic reformer dies
By Judy Stowe
BBC

Nguyen Xuan Oanh, a Harvard-educated economist and former deputy prime minister in the American-backed Southern Vietnam government, died at home on Friday, according to government officials. He was 82

He helped draft Vietnam's landmark doi moi economic reform package in the mid-1980s, which sought to turn Vietnam's centrally planned economy into one that was market-based but with socialist influences, and that later would embrace private enterprise.

It is a measure of the international background of Nguyen Xuan Oanh that his foreign friends often referred to him as Jack Owen.

Nguyen Xuan Oanh
Nguyen Xuan Oanh helped to transform Vietnam's economy

During World War II, he was sent from Vietnam to study in Japan.

The purpose was that he should understand the economic ideas underlying the development of the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere which was intended to incorporate the whole of Indo-China.

The project collapsed with the Japanese surrender in 1945, but he quickly grasped that the new economic power in the region was to be the United States  and instead of being repatriated to Vietnam, managed to wangle a scholarship to go and continue his economic studies at Harvard.

As such he was one of the first Vietnamese to graduate and obtain a doctorate at this prestigious American university.

It earned him a position within the International Monetary Fund. But during the 1960s he decided to return to Saigon to help his own country's economic development.

It was a time of political turmoil when, in 1964, following the assassination of Ngo Dinh Diem and all the argumentation amongst the generals, Oanh suddenly found himself projected into the position of acting prime minister of the Republic of Vietnam.

His period of office was short and he soon returned to becoming an economic adviser to the government and then a private businessman.

Therefore, despite his many American connections, he saw no reason to flee Saigon in April 1975 like so many other former South Vietnamese politicians.

His forbearance was rewarded.

Whilst hundreds of thousands of other former Saigon officials and soldiers were sent off to so called re-education camps, Oanh was not.

It was rumoured at the time that this was due to his wife, a famous film star who had influence in Hanoi. Oanh himself used to say jokingly that it was all due to chocolate.

People in the South had enjoyed it, but nobody in the North had seen it for years. Just give them a taste of it and they will want more. In other words the economic system previously pursued in Saigon was more popular than that in Hanoi.

Political survivor

During the late 1970s Oanh managed to persuade Vo Van Kiet then Chairman of Ho Chi Minh City People's Committee that economic pragmatism was more likely to produce results than communist dogmatism.

But such ideas fell foul of political rivalries. Even so, when the policy of Doi Moi was introduced in 1986, Oanh was seen as somebody who might be able to open up channels for foreign investment in Vietnam and he was allowed to travel abroad again particularly to the United States.

Yet the trade embargo persisted and his efforts came to little so he retreated once more into private business mainly with South Korea.

He was, after all, internationally well known and got along easily with foreigners.

Yet in the long term despite all his contacts Nguyen Xuan Oanh had little impact on the economic fortunes of Vietnam, no matter which regime he was working for.


SEE ALSO:
Country profile: Vietnam
24 May 03  |  Country profiles
Vietnam reforms 'too slow'
07 Aug 03  |  Business


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