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11/12 May 2013

Interview with Than Niên concerning the appointments of Ngân and Nhân

Dear Dr. London,

As you probably know, Vietnam has appointed Deputy PM Nguyen Thien Nhan, a US-trained academic, and Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan, a vice house speaker, as the two new faces of the Politburo.

1. What do you make of this appointment? How significant is it to Vietnam at this stage?

It’s encouraging that among various possibilities, the Party has elected two bright and capable individuals to its highest echelon of authority. Ngan and Nhan are perhaps particular welcome in that both individuals have substantial experience on issues of real importance to Viet Nam’s people, such as education, social affairs, and foreign relations, which are vitally important as Viet Nam moves forward with its reforms.

2. Nhan was credited with launching a campaign euphemistically called “Say No to Negative Phenomena in Exams” to combat the problems of cheating and corruption that have plagued Vietnam’s education system. But little headway has been made on improving the quality of the education sector. Given this, why was he kicked upstairs?

There was a great deal of hope surrounding Nhan’s appointment as Minister of Education, but his record as Minister of Education was mixed at best. The education sector is notoriously difficult to manage, so much so that some well-intended proposals to reform higher education have suggested the need to work around MOET itself. The education sector remains a point of frustration for large segments of the population. Perhaps in his new position of power Nhan might push through reforms which he was unable or unwilling to advance earlier. Perhaps more important, the politburo will have a member who is keenly familiar with the challenges in the education sector. It will then be up to the Vietnamese people to effectively mobilize in support of necessary reforms.  

3. Nhan’s supporters consider him a face familiar to Western investors that could help to revive the economy. What is your take? How could the Party and the govenment cash in on this potential? How would foreign investors make of this development?

It certainly is an advantage to have someone like Nhan, who is entirely at ease with foreigners, appointed to its highest post. Yet a familiar face in and of itself will be insufficient. Prospective investors are looking for real changes in Viet Nam’s governance institutions. The success or failure of any efforts to revive investment will have more to do with whether or not their is substantial reform, rather than whether or not there is a familiar face in power.

4. Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan was credited with sucessfully commanding the mass rescue of the Vietnamese guest workers in Lybia two years ago. Did this carry much weight in her promotion? What else did she do that played a pivotal role in her promotion?

I am not familiar with Ngan’s activity in Lybia. My familiarity with Ngan concerns her activities in social affairs, a field in which she commands considerable respect. Ms. Ngan displays commendably deep familiarity with many important social issues, such as poverty, vulnerability, and problems in the health system. It is important that Viet Nam address these issues with renewed energy, urgency, and competence and it can be hoped that Ngan’s appointment will help in this regard.

5. Would there be any change in the US-Vietnam relations after this appointment? How would it affect the relations between Vietnam and the rest of the world?

It is promising that the Party has elected two bright, open-minded individuals with considerable experience to its leadership. In particular, Nhan’s familiarity with the US is an asset. However, the most important steps Viet Nam can take with respect to improved relations with the US, would be true breakthroughs in governance reforms, both with respect to economic matters and in the political and civic realms. Viet Nam’s people are ready for real change and they want the Politburo to deliver. As important as these appointments may be, real change in Viet Nam requires the active participation of all Vietnamese in the country’s political and social life. If the two appointments can facilitate movement in this direction Viet Nam stands to benefit and will its relations with the rest of the world.

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