- The Washington Times - Friday, May 17, 2002

HANOI The embalmed body of Vietnamese Communist leader Ho Chi Minh, who died in 1969, remains on public display, but as Vietnam prepares to celebrate the 112th anniversary of his birth Sunday, many of the revered revolutionary's sayings are ignored.

Vietnam's current top leader, Nong Duc Manh, instead seeks to mix capitalism with political control to govern this country and increase its ability to compete in the 21st century.

Mr. Manh, a minority ethnic Tay, completed his first year as Vietnamese Communist Party leader last month.

One of his priorities was to get a grip on the flow of information, not only over Vietnam's controlled media and fledgling Internet connection, but also the truth about his own origins. Over the years, widespread gossip suggested he was the illegitimate son of "Uncle Ho" and a Tay servant.

Mr. Manh had always refused to confirm or deny the link.

"It is not true," Mr. Manh told the international edition of Time magazine this year. "I don't know why the rumor persisted for so long." Ho Chi Minh was "surely not my natural father."

Born in the mountainous north on Sept. 11, 1940, Mr. Manh may have allowed the rumor to spread because it appeared to help his fast political ascent. He is the first member of an ethnic minority to reach the political pinnacle in Vietnam.

After his parents died when he was still young, Mr. Manh joined the Communist Party at age 22.

Instead of enlisting in North Vietnam's war of reunification, he studied Russian in Hanoi. Sent to the Soviet Union, he studied forestry before returning home for training as a potential leader at an elite political school. He entered the National Assembly in 1989.

Foreign businessmen expressed hope that his emphasis on boosting the economy and tackling corruption will ease the pain of investing in Vietnam.

Mr. Manh's efforts to open the economy, however, do not extend to politics. Scattered protests by political dissidents, religious leaders and minority ethnic groups have been met by long prison sentences and other crackdowns during the past year.

Opposition parties remain banned. In National Assembly elections this Sunday coinciding with Ho's birthday, 634 Communist Party candidates and 125 nonparty candidates will compete for five-year terms in the 500-seat assembly.

"Although he is the youngest member of the Communist Party leadership at 61, Nong Duc Manh is no reformist," contends Paris-based Reporters Without Frontiers, which monitors human rights. "During his eight years as speaker of parliament, he had a law passed that was particularly restrictive of press freedom."

Mr. Manh has also said goodbye to the Russians, departing from their naval and air base at Cam Ranh Bay. The base closure began this month at the U.S.-built, deep-water facility that once housed thousands of Russian troops, more than a dozen ships and 30 aircraft.

Hanoi wanted more money than Moscow was willing to pay to extend the 1979 lease.

Mr. Manh will now have to figure out how to make the harbor and facilities commercially attractive. It could be convenient for cargo ships plying the seas between Japan and Southeast Asia.

As Communist Party secretary-general, Mr. Manh's work includes improving relations with the United States and other foreign countries especially to lure their investors.

Relations between Washington and Hanoi have come a long way since President Richard M. Nixon contemplated nuking North Vietnam to end America's long effort to maintain a noncommunist regime in the south.

"I'd rather use the nuclear bomb we want to decimate the place . North Vietnam is going to get reordered," Mr. Nixon said in secret tapes he recorded in the White House in 1972. The tapes were released by the U.S. National Archives this year.

Mr. Manh's predecessor, Gen. Le Kha Phieu, was unceremoniously removed in April 2001 by the Communist Party's Central Committee. It was displeased with Gen. Le's old-style approach, which had tied down the economy and allowed bribery, red tape and official indifference to dominate.

Under Mr. Manh, the government wants a "private, capitalist economy" to develop. That means continuing to privatize some enterprises while loosening restrictions on domestic and international business.

Problems are expected to persist, however, because the government wants to hold onto key sectors of the economy. Foreign and local investors are waiting, meanwhile, for private companies to enjoy the same access to bank credit as government-run enterprises.

But after a year in power, Mr. Manh is perceived by some analysts as a weak, pliant leader who relies too much on compromise and consensus when making major decisions. However, Mr. Manh does not share Ho's opposition to individualism.

"The worst and most dangerous vestige of the old society is individualism," Ho declared in a 1958 speech, "On Revolutionary Morality."

Ho had predicted that "collectivism and socialism will certainly prevail, while individualism will surely disappear. Individualism is something very deceitful and perfidious. It skillfully induces one to backslide."

In another speech, he said: "U.S. imperialists disseminate a depraved culture to poison the youth in areas [of Southeast Asia] under their temporary control."

Today, individualism and American culture is considered cool by many urban youths and also inspire rural Vietnamese who are cynical of past collectivization and the hunger and corruption it spawned.

Ho's corpse and the life he led are still considered sacred, protected by armed guards at his tomb and by repressive media laws.

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