June 11, 2008 / 5:44 AM / 10 years ago

Reformist ex-Vietnam premier Vo Van Kiet dies

HANOI (Reuters) - Former Vietnam Prime Minister Vo Van Kiet, a major force behind economic reforms started in the late 1980s, died on Wednesday, his family and the government said. He was 85.

Born on November 23, 1922, in the southern Mekong Delta, Kiet served as prime minister from 1991 until he stepped down to be replaced by his former deputy Phan Van Khai in September 1997.

In his term as premier, and as the most senior southerner in the ruling Communist Party and government, Kiet was a leader in the Southeast Asian country’s market-oriented economic reforms known as “doi moi” (renewal) in the late 1980s and 1990s which started to replace a failed Soviet-style system.

Out of office, Kiet remained active in political discourse, giving interviews and publishing commentaries pushing for more reforms even as Vietnam joined the World Trade Organisation and averaged annual GDP growth of 7.5 percent since 2000.

He was also supportive of media’s growing role and importance in his country, where all newspapers, radio and TV are state-run.

“Vietnam will sorely miss an architect of ‘doi moi’ and someone who was constantly urging the current government to stay the course of reforms the way he envisaged them,” said Carl Thayer, long-time political analyst of Vietnam in Australia and the United States.

Relatives said he died in Singapore of acute pneumonia but a spokesman for the Mount Elizabeth Hospital that treated him said “he was repatriated to Vietnam at his family’s request”.

A government spokesman confirmed Kiet’s death.

“We were informed that former Prime Minister Vo Van Kiet passed away on June 11,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Le Dung said. “Details will be provided later.”

Kiet, together with former communist party general secretary Do Muoi and former president Le Duc Anh, stepped down from the elite politburo in December 1997. He served for a time as an adviser to the party’s central committee.

“He was a beloved person,” said Tran Du Lich, director of the Ho Chi Minh City Economic Research Institute, one of Vietnam’s leading economic think-tanks.

Born Phan Van Hoa and known informally as Sau Dan, Kiet joined the revolutionary movement against French colonial rule in 1938 at the age of 16.

After an abortive uprising in 1940 he fled to the jungle and by 1945 was a cadre in the communist-led nationalist movement, the Viet Minh.

He was the party’s political commissar for Saigon in 1958, and by 1960, as the armed struggle against the U.S.-backed government of Ngo Dinh Diem was underway, he was a leading member of the central office, South Vietnam — the politburo arm running the Viet Cong insurgency.

Reporting by Hanoi bureau; Additional reporting by Koh Gui Qing in SINGAPORE; Editing by Jerry Norton

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