Vietnam's top three government leaders resigned yesterday, kicking off a major political reshuffle in the communist nation as it heads into an era of profound economic change, officials said.
Prime Minister Phan Van Khai, President Tran Duc Luong and National Assembly Chairman Nguyen Van An stepped down after the 496-member legislature approved their long-anticipated resignations, an assembly source said.
The generational change comes at a time of rapid transition in the country of 83 million people, which remains a one-party state but leads Southeast Asia in economic growth which reached 8.4 percent last year.
Vietnam looks set to join the WTO this year before hosting an APEC summit in November, to be attended by US President George W. Bush and leaders from the region.
Deputy Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, 56, a former soldier and state bank chief, was expected to replace 72-year-old Khai next week when the assembly votes in a new government, including six new key ministers.
Yesterday's vote took place behind closed doors, and the regime was not due to officially inform the country of the resignations until tomorrow.
"The deputies voted for the departure of the three," an assembly source said, speaking on condition of anonymity hours after the men had issued their resignation letters.
Amid the secrecy, it was not clear who would officially head the government for the remainder of the weekend, but several party sources said the senior deputies would be in charge.
Vietnam's first deputy prime minister is Dung, the standing deputy national assembly chairman is Truong Quang Duoc and Truong My Hoa serves as vice president.
The changes have been expected for months in Vietnam, one of the world's five remaining communist regimes, where the 14-member politburo handles key policy and leadership decisions.
Khai, Vietnam's first post-war premier to visit Washington, earlier this month asked the assembly to allow him to step down, a year before his second term officially ends in the middle of last year.
He and the other leaders cited age as their reason for retiring.
"We have made our contributions to the country's reform and development achievements over nearly 10 years," Khai told the assembly yesterday, according to online news site VietnamNet.
He also apologized for his government's shortcomings, expressing the self-criticism that is customary in Vietnamese politics, and said he wanted to hand power to someone "younger than myself."
His long-time protege, Dung, has been groomed for the prime ministership for years, having held key security and economic posts. He moved up to third rank in the politburo at a party congress in April.
"Since the party congress he's been very visible publicly and among the international community," said the UN Development Program's chief economist in Vietnam, Jonathan Pincus.
"Dung does have a reputation, like many southerners, of someone who wants to accelerate the process of economic change," he said.
Luong, 69, whose role as president has been largely ceremonial, was expected to be replaced by Nguyen Minh Triet, 63, the party boss in Ho Chi Minh City and also considered an economic reformer.
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