Võ Văn Kiệt (23 November 1922 – 11 June 2008) was a Vietnamese politician and statesman. He was a veteran fighter in the long war against French and then American military forces in South Vietnam. In the difficult years following the war, he was one of the most prominent political leaders that led the innovation (Đổi mới) policy in Vietnam.
He served as Prime Minister of Vietnam from 8 August 1991 to 25 September 1997, the period experienced the communist nation’s return to the world arena after decades of war and isolation.
Kiệt was born in 1922 into a peasant family in Trung Hiệp village, Vũng Liêm district, Vĩnh Long province in the Mekong Delta in southern Vietnam, then a part of Cochinchina in what was called French Indochina.
His birth name was Phan Văn Hòa and he changed it to Võ Văn Kiệt when he was admitted to the Indochinese Communist Party in 1939. He also had a pseudonym, Sáu Dân. He joined the Anti-imperialist Youth Movement and took part in the Nam Kỳ (Cochinchina) insurrection in Vũng Liêm district.
As a member of the communist-led Viet Minh independence movement, Kiệt fought the French in the First Indochina War (1946–54) in Southern Vietnam.
According to Geneva Accords, communist cadres were forced to gather in North Vietnam, but he was among those who remained in the South, moving between secret bases in the southeastern region. His first wife, Trần Kim Anh, and his two children were killed in a rocket attack by US forces in 1966.
In 1960, he was elected alternate member of the Communist Party Central Committee and a member of COSVN in 1961, in command of communist forces in Saigon and surrounding areas.
After North Vietnamese forces took control of Saigon in April 30, 1975, he led the takeover of the city and in 1976 was appointed as Chairman of the People’s Committee (alias governor) as well deputy party secretary of the city, which had been renamed to Ho Chi Minh City in memory of the deceased leader.
In the early postwar years, South Vietnam’s economy deteriorated rapidly due to the withdrawal of US investment and the harsh Stalinist policies enforced by central government. Inhabitants of Saigon, formerly a dynamic economic center, faced for the first time a widespread lack of food and other commodities.
As the head of the city government, Kiệt realized that Soviet economic model was flawed and secretly promoted trade and manufacturing beyond the state’s stringent plan. Gradually he became a stalwart of the reformist faction in the party, many of whom are local party heads and administrators in southern provinces.
In 1982, he was promoted to Deputy chairman of the Council of Ministers (Vice Premier) and became Chairman of the State Planning Commission. In 1987, he was appointed First Deputy Prime Minister of Vietnam and assumed the role of Acting Prime Minister from March to June 1988 after the sudden death of Phạm Hùng.
In the tradition of the party’s organisation, he should have been made Premier. However, allegedly due to a personal quarrel between Kiệt and Nguyễn Văn Linh- the Secretary General and his longtime superior – as well as opposition from conservative members of the Politburo, Đỗ Mười was chosen instead.
In the plenary session of the National Assembly in 1988, however, many delegates nominated him as a second candidate. Even though he got only 35% of votes, this was unprecedented, as elections in the National Assembly had previously had one candidates and they were essentially legitimation of decisions made by the Party Politburo.
Kiệt took the role of First Vice Premier and continued to push his reform agenda. In 1991, he was elected as Prime Minister, an office he held until 1997.
His tenure marked the advance of the administrative branch at the expense of the influence of the Party’s institutions, when the power was shared by three top leaders: General Secretary (Đỗ Mười), Prime Minister, and President (Lê Đức Anh. He initiated a large program of economic reform, reorganised the government and urged the broadening of diplomatic ties.
In the early 1990s Vietnam gradually recovered from the economic crisis of the previous decade. In 1995 the country joined the ASEAN community and normalized relations with the US, ending 20 years of formal mutual enmity and American embargo after the fall of Saigon.
The conflict between reformist and conservative factions increased and culminated in a series of power struggles in the mid-1990s. Representing the reformists, Kiệt advocated for further privatisation of state dominated economy, as well as democratization – an approach criticised by his political rivals as dangerous to “socialist orientation”.
In 1996, after the party could not create a consensus on personnel arrangement, all of the three top leaders remained in their positions. However, factionalism was only intensified and eventually led both Kiệt and his opponents (Mười, Anh) to step down at the same time in 1997. They continued to influence the country affairs as Advisors for Standing Committee of the party until 2001.
After retiring from politics, Kiệt lived in Ho Chi Minh City. Since then, he had spoken out on many issues, and was seen as a defender of people’s rights.
Võ Văn Kiệt was the highest-ranking former government official to have openly spoken out about reconciliation with Vietnamese exiles and democracy activists. Recently, he had spoken out against the proposed expansion of Hanoi and the demolition of the historic National Assembly building in Ba Đình Square to make place for a new one.
Kiệt was admitted to Singapore’s Mount Elizabeth Hospital on June 3, 2008 with unspecified ailments and died at the age of 85 on early Wednesday, June 11, 2008.
State media did not announce his death until the night of June 12, after most foreign news agencies had already reported it and many foreign dignitaries had already offered condolences, including United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. The government of Vietnam announced a state funeral on June 14 and 15 to be held in the Reunification Palace (Ho Chi Minh City), Hanoi, and his birth province Vĩnh Long.
The eulogy for Mr Kiệt was given by communist party leader Nông Đức Mạnh at the Reunification Palace in Hồ Chí Minh City, where his body had been lying in state.
He described Mr Kiệt as “an excellent leader of our party, state and people, a faithful revolutionary fighter who has devoted his whole life for national independence, socialism and people’s happiness”. Mr Kiệt’s flag-draped coffin, carried in a glass case and accompanied by a military procession, was then taken through the streets, where thousands of mourners waited to pay tribute. Vietnam held two days of national mourning. Among the grey ranks of Vietnam’s communist leadership, Mr Kiệt was one of few figures to have stood out.
Credited as a leading figure in the economic reforms known as Đổi Mới, which have transformed Vietnam’s economy, he was a rarity among senior officials in speaking out publicly against the failings of economic system . One of his comrades in arms, Trần Quốc Hương, former head of intelligence for the Việt Cộng network in South Vietnam, wrote in the condolence book: “I was deeply moved by your death. You were my comrade, my friend, and my brother.”
After the communist victory in 1975 he became party secretary of Saigon, and quietly defied hard-line official policy by trying to work with officials and businesses associated with the defeated government. As prime minister, Mr Kiệt presided over a period of dramatic economic growth and foreign investment.
In an interview with the BBC in 2007 he questioned whether Communist Party members were true patriots, saying: “The motherland of Vietnam doesn’t belong to one person, one party or one group only.”
In his final weeks, Kiệt also spoke out against the expansion of the capital Hanoi and expressed concern whether Vietnam could protect itself against rising sea levels caused by global warming.
Mr Kiệt led Vietnam’s economic reform of the 1990s and its reopening to the outside world after decades of isolation. His death raises questions about which way the communist party in Vietnam would move on. There were signs in late 2010s that Mr Kiệt’s reformist allies had been losing their influence.
Out of office, since 1997, Kiệt remained active in politics, publishing commentaries pushing for more liberalisation even as Vietnam joined the World Trade Organisation in 2007 and averaged annual GDP growth of 7.5 percent since 2000.
Memorial and burial services at state level for Võ Văn Kiệt were organized in Vietnam’s southern Hồ Chí Minh City on Sunday morning June 15, 2008 with the participation of many residents and officials, including the country’s top party and state leaders. Thousands of mourners lined the streets of Hồ Chí Minh City for the funeral of Võ Văn Kiệt.
“The death of former prime minister Võ Văn Kiệt is a great loss to the party, state, people and his family… He had a spirit of daring to think and daring to do. The comrade (Kiệt) and party and state leaders led all people to conduct the renovation cause, bringing our country out of the socioeconomic crisis,” Nông Đức Mạnh, General Secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam Central Committee and head of the funeral board, said at the memorial service televised live by the Central Vietnam Television.
Top Communist Party officials, some wearing black suits and black ties, solemnly stood to attention in the front row of mourners before Kiệt’s coffin during the service. Relatives stood in black mourning clothes and white headbands.
The coffin was draped in Vietnam’s red flag with a gold star and enclosed in a glass case for transportation on a gun carriage through city streets to the national cemetery for burial.
Tens of thousands of mourners lined the streets to honor Kiệt as his coffin was carried in a procession of military vehicles through Hồ Chí Minh City to be cremated.
The country’s political elite paid their respects in Reunification Palace, where Communist Party chief Nông Đức Mạnh headed long lines of mourners who filed past Kiệt’s coffin from early Saturday.
As his body lay in state, the palace hall was filled with incense smoke and funereal music played by an army band. Saturday and Sunday were declared days of mourning with flags flying at half-mast at official buildings.
In a statement, current Prime Minister Nguyễn Tấn Dũng paid tribute to Kiệt as “a wholehearted, loyal, irrepressible and heroic Communist. All his life, all his heart and all his force was for the country and the people.”
Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Phm Gia Khiêm told AFP that Kiệt “was very dynamic in setting policy in the renovation period, and I think his contribution will stay with the Vietnamese people forever.”