Page last updated at 17:29 GMT, Wednesday, 11 June 2008 18:29 UK

Obituary: Vo Van Kiet

By Nga Pham
BBC Vietnamese Service

Vo Van Kiet
The war is a common wound for our entire nation that needs to be nursed but not provoked to bleed
Vo Van Kiet
Vo Van Kiet, who died on Wednesday, will be remembered for spearheading Vietnam's "economic miracle" of the 1990s.

As the country's prime minister from 1991 to 1997, he was one of the leading figures to bring about the reforms known as Doi Moi (Renovation) that transformed Vietnam from a socialist system to one of the world's fastest-growing market economies.

He was also the first Vietnamese leader to speak about sensitive issues like reconciliation over the war, patriotism and the need to catch up with the outside world.

He cut a formidable figure among the ranks of more lacklustre apparatchiks.

Famed for his open, bright smile, he was the first prime minister to take up golf, which was then dubbed a "capitalist sport".

He played tennis daily, was rumoured to be partial to fine wines and had a wife who held a doctorate degree: radical behaviour for a member of the party at the time.

Boosting the economy

Originally from South Vietnam, Mr Kiet carried out reform policies initiated by his mentor, former leader Nguyen Van Linh, with a flourish.

By the time he left office in 1997, Vietnam was posting impressive annual growth rates of 8%-9%.

Even the Asian financial crisis in 1997 did not dent the booming economy too badly, and there were high hopes that Vietnam would surge past its neighbours to become a middle-income country in the next decade or so.

Romani Prodi entertaining Vo Van Kiet during a visit to Rome
Mr Kiet was the one of the first leaders to embrace the outside world
But Mr Kiet will also be remembered for other issues. He was known to make bold and heartfelt statements, such as: "When mentioning the [Vietnam] war, a million people feel happy but another million feel miserable.

"The war is a common wound for our entire nation, that needs to be nursed but not provoked to bleed."

During Mr Kiet's time as premier, the US lifted embargos against Vietnam and the two countries finally normalised their relationship.

He never visited America, but his views on Vietnam's former foe were believed to be considerably warmer than those of the previous generation of party cadres.

Mr Kiet passed away in Singapore, a nation close to his reformist heart.

During his time at the helm in the 1990s, he became fascinated with both the island's economic success and its leader Lee Kwan Yew.

Mr Lee was several times invited to Vietnam to advise Hanoi's leadership.

Mr Kiet hoped that Vietnam would one day prosper like Singapore, while maintaining one-party rule.

Struggle between two sides

In many ways Vo Van Kiet was a remarkable representative of the reformist camp in Vietnam's Communist Party.

Hanoi stock exchange
Vietnam's economy is currently suffering high inflation rates
Despite retiring as an adviser to the party's Central Committee in 2001, his last official position, he retained a considerable authority and continued to voice opinions on an array of national matters.

In 2005, in the run-up to the 10th Congress of the Communist Party, he reportedly sent a letter to the Politburo and Central Committee to call for wider reform within the party.

Some see Mr Kiet's illustrious career as an indication of the struggle between the reformist and conservative factions inside the Communist Party.

When he stepped down from the powerful Politburo in 1997, he was accompanied by General Secretary Do Muoi and President Le Duc Anh, both considered traditional hardliners.

Mr Kiet's departure was seen at the time as a concession to the rival camp.

In 2006, when a number of Mr Kiet's allies and fellow southerners were elected to Vietnam's top positions, analysts noted that the hand of the reformers had strengthened.

Sure enough, Mr Kiet was seen publicly expressing his sharp, sometimes critical, views on political and social subjects, ranging from education and the role of media to the parliamentary elections.

But this May - when his criticism of the proposed expansion plan for Hanoi fell on deaf ears and the national assembly promptly approved it - rumours started spreading of how the "old camp" might now be gaining the upper hand again, at the expense of the reformists.

At the same time, reformist Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung has come under fire for Vietnam's recent lacklustre economic performance - especially the rocketing inflation and increasing trade deficit.

The reformists may be somewhat out of favour at the moment within the party, but the death of one of the most vocal leaders in Vietnam's communist history is certain to be a local talking point in the days ahead.

Ex-Vietnamese PM Vo Van Kiet dies
11 Jun 08 |  Asia-Pacific
Reform call by ex-Vietnamese PM
10 May 07 |  Asia-Pacific
Vietnam's WTO membership begins
11 Jan 07 |  Business
Vietnam marks opening to markets
18 Dec 06 |  Asia-Pacific
Country profile: Vietnam
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