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The Ninth Party Congress in Vietnam in March 2001 may be pivotal in determining whether the Vietnamese leadership can break with its conservative past and grapple more effectively with some perennial problems that continue to inhibit national growth.
Already three influential elder statesmen have registered their view that the average age of the leaders is too high, and that fresh younger blood is required. In October 2000, former party secretary General Do Muoi, former President Le Duc Anh and former Premier Vo Van Kiet wrote to the current party leader Le Kha Phieu recommending that leaders over 70 should step down, or not stand for re-election. This was quite a pointed suggestion since Le Kha Phieu himself turns 70 in December 2001.
The letter has no doubt raised tensions within the party, because it points to other issues about which the leadership is either divided or ineffective in resolving.
One is a disturbing increase in corruption associated with land appropriations by local officials for public works throughout the country. Popular indignation over what were widely perceived to be illegal appropriations in several provinces boiled over in 1997, but efforts to resolve the matter by the politburo, including appointing special mediation teams and referring the matter to the Vietnamese Farmers’ Union, have not solved the problem.
Another issue has been a recent increase in conversions among Vietnamese hill tribes to fundamental Christian beliefs as the result of short-wave broadcasts, mainly from private religious organisations based in the Philippines. Although the Vietnamese Communist Party claims that religious freedom is practised in Vietnam, the leadership feels threatened - as does the Chinese leadership by Falungong - by widespread adherence to any doctrine that could challenge its own strength. Repression, the natural response by the more conservative members of the Party to such a situation, will probably not work, but no alternative has yet been suggested.
There is also a legacy of division within the Party over the Clinton visit last November. Some elements wanted to emphasise the responsibility the United States has to help the country clean up the unexploded ordinance and dioxin poisoning left after the American withdrawal - a legacy that continues to kill and injure thousands of Vietnamese each year. Others, notably among the younger members of the Party, wanted to bury the past and get on with wooing American investment and trade. Among these revisionists dissatisfaction persists that President Tran Duc Luong missed a golden opportunity to talk about trade and investment, and focussed too much and too severely on the war and America’s responsibility for repairing some of the damage.
WATCHPOINT: These will by no means be the only contentious issues addressed in March. But how they are addressed and resolved, if indeed resolution is possible, will be an important indicator of Vietnams’ future direction.
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