Nation Mourns Vietnam’s Late Premier

Blogs - Vietnam: March 27, 2018

A state funeral of Phan Van Khai, former prime minister of Vietnam, was held on March 20 and 21.

Phan Van Khai, former prime minister of Socialist Republic of Vietnam, passed away on March 17, due to ailment and old age, at his home in Tan Thong Hoi commune in Cu Chi district. He was 84.

On Saturday and Sunday, Khai's body was formally laid to rest in Cu Chi district where the country's top leaders, along with veterans, diplomats and local residents paid their final respects ahead of Khai's funeral Sunday in his home province.

From 8:00 a.m. on March 20 until the end of March 21, Saigon residents attended the funeral as the body of former prime minister Khai laid at Reunification Palace in Ho Chi Minh City.

At 7:30 a.m. on March 22, an event honoring Khai took place in both cities, which was also be broadcasted live on Vietnam Television and state radio broadcaster Voice of Vietnam (VOV). The burial ritual was conducted at Khai’s hometown at the cemetery in Cu Chi district at 11:00 am on the same day.

A briefly changed way of life in the city

During the two-day state funeral, all state offices and public facilities flew the national flag at half-mast and all entertainment and unrelated public events were suspended across the country.

But while the official’s death called for a mourning period, there were not drastic changes in the residents’ daily lives but some public events were interrupted:

- VPF (the Vietnam Professional Football Joint Stock Company) postponed two games because of the national mourning.

- In Ho Chi Minh City, Bui Vien Street was closed during the two days of funeral

- CGV and other cinemas cancelled their film screenings

- In Hanoi, public playgrounds were closed on the two days of national mourning

A flag flying at half-mast at Saigon Central Post Office in Ho Chi Minh City

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A flag fly half-mast at the District 1 People’s Committee in Ho Chi Minh City

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Those paying respects to the Vietnamese former leader included current and former leaders of the Communist Party and government as well as civilians from all walks of life. They gathered and lined up onto the street to pay tribute to Khai starting early in the day on March 20.

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Riding on Saigon’s major streets like Nam Ky Khoi Nghia and Le Duan on this day, foreigners may have been surprised by the number of police personnel around the city. Police officers were been tasked with keeping order and security at the venue, while traffic cops controlled traffic at the entrance of Reunification Palace as well as in nearby streets.

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Meanwhile, people in northern Vietnam also attended the ceremony at the International Convention Center in Hanoi.

Thousands of people paying respects

On 22 March, the burial ritual of the late premier commenced at 7:30 a.m. as scheduled.

At least 2,000 people from all walks of life assembled in front of the Reunification Palace, where the body of Khai was kept in the two days of funeral. They witnessed the ceremony through two large monitors. Mourners also bid the last farewells to their former leader as his body was returned to his hometown in Cu Chi district for the final burial ritual. Some did not go to work in order to be there.

Thousand of elementary school students held white roses while lined up inside and at the entrance of Reunification Palace.

Outside the venue, residents filled the street with elders standing in the front, silently but trying in earnest to reach their sights as far as possible in to the building. Alongside Le Duan street, there are two giant screens were set up for anyone who couldn’t physically access to the palace and follow what was happening inside.

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As the funeral procession passed by, all students and the police raised their hands in salute to their late premier.

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An overview of Khai’s political career

Phan Van Khai was born on December 25, 1933, and joined the revolutionary movement against the colonial French at the young age of 14 before becoming a member of the Communist Party at age 26.

He spent five years studying economics in the former Soviet Union until 1965, and returned to Ho Chi Minh City after the Communists unified the country in 1975.

Before he was elected prime minister in 1997, Khai was deputy secretary of the Ho Chi Minh City Party Committee, then the city’s chairman. After that he was head of the State Planning Commission (now the Ministry of Planning and Investment) and then vice chairman of the Council of Ministers and deputy prime minister.

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In 2002, Khai was reelected. However, he resigned in 2006 one year before his term ended citing old age.

The Communist Party and state presented Khai with the Golden Star Order, the highest decoration given by the Vietnamese government for a military member or civilian who has completed exceptional service for the revolutionary cause of the Party.

A breakthrough thinking leader

Phan Van Khai was one of Vietnam's most reform-minded prime ministers, according to economist Pham Chi Lan, one of the late leader’s economic advisers.

"He was a good politician and technocrat because he was among the few Vietnamese leaders who were trained properly in economics", Lan said.

Assuming the highest government post when Vietnam’s economy was in a tender time, Khai made an active and determined effort to help Vietnam little by little open itself to the world following the launch of drastic economic reforms, which left an indelible mark in the socio-economic development of the country. During his nearly two working terms, fundamental laws in the first phase of the Đổi Mới (or “renovation,” the term given to Vietnam’s economic liberalization in the mid ‘90s).

In spite of the hardship and pressure during the isolation periods, Khai encouraged his colleagues and subordinates to think out of the box by taking action such as going overseas and learn from other countries. At Khai’s funeral General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong wrote in the guestbook that Vietnamese think of him as “an excellent leader of the Vietnamese Party, state, and people, who devoted his entire life to the revolutionary cause of the nation.”

The architect of Vietnam's early economic rise

During his premiership, Khai set two big milestones in Vietnam’s integration to the global market, including presenting the bill on the U.S.-Vietnam Bilateral Trade Agreement (BTA), which was signed in 2001. He also oversaw Vietnam's accession into the World Trade Organization in 2006.

Under the government of Khai, Vietnam’s Law on Enterprises was promoted to the public in 1999, which led to the abolition of hundreds of business sublicenses and paved the way for private businesses to thrive in Vietnam. The recognition of private businesses as a legitimate sector and a slate of policies distancing the Vietnamese economy from the centralized model of the previous few decades set the country on track for firm economic growth.

He set up a working group to implement the law and started by reducing sublicenses, cutting half of them to make things easier for businesses. This contributed to the growth of the private sector and entrepreneurship as well as the equitization of state-owned enterprises, a swell in foreign investment and international integration.

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Khai also became the first Vietnamese leader to visit the US at the invitation of former president George W. Bush in 2005.

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