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Vietnam: Nguyen Ba Thanh and the Portrait of Power By Carlyle A. Thayer

C3S Paper No. 0008 / 2015


You probably are aware of recent developments and rumors surrounding the health of Nguyen Ba Thanh. We request your assessment of the following issues:

1. What do you make of the fact that rumors about his ailing health have riveted Da Nang over the past days, galvanizing people into praying for him and thronging the airport hoping to see him back?

ANSWER: Nguyen Ba Thanh by all accounts was a popular leader during his tenure in Da Nang. He advanced grassroots democracy, improved administration, and pioneered direct elections. He also oversaw the remarkable development of Da Nang into a truly modern, attractive and outward looking city. These factors – coupled by some sensational speculation about his illness – sparked intense public interest. This is manifest in the public outpouring of concern and support for him.

2. Thanh was credited with steering Da Nang toward many socio-economic accomplishments. But since he was appointed as head of the Party’s Interior Commission, he appeared to be unable to get things done as compared to when he was the leader of Da Nang. Is that a fair observation?

ANSWER: Nguyen Ba Thanh was brought to Hanoi to perform what may have been an impossible task, heading the anti-corruption drive as a comparative outsider to national politics. Thanh may have hoped that success as head of the party’s internal commission would lead to further advancement in national politics. He was frustrated in his anti-corruption drive. Thanh’s rise brought with it friction with vested interests that meant he was not selected to join the Politburo when it was expanded from fourteen to sixteen members.

3. What do you make of such public concerns about the well-being of a populist leader like Thanh in Vietnam?

ANSWER: As Vietnam has developed, and as the internet and social media have spread, increased attention and publicity is being accorded to high profile political leaders. This has eroded Vietnam’s past “cult of collective leadership” where leaders were self-effacing and did not seek the limelight. This has all changed in recent decades. The Vietnamese public knows much more about the background, family affairs, and views of key leaders. They appear on national TV, on the internet and are discussed by bloggers. The focus on the individual rather than the collective has resulted in an enhanced role for public opinion. The public naturally focuses on populist leaders. Nguyen Ba Thanh was a beneficiary of these developments.

(Article reprinted with the permission of the author Carlyle A. Thayer, Emeritus Professor,The University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra email: Carlthayer@webone.com.au)

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