Pressure on Hanoi rising with summer temperatures

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 01 April, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 01 April, 1998, 12:00am

As the March mists recede, it looks like being a long, hot summer for Vietnam's new leaders.

Little rain in the north means the dams are dangerously low. Already, Hanoi is bracing for power shortages as the temperatures rise - just more pressure on a leadership that has been forced to find new ways to keep its subjects happy.

In the all-important countryside, unemployment is a nagging fear as the regional downturn bites and makes Vietnam's state enterprises look even more inefficient.

In the cities, the new salaried elite mutter ever more openly about corruption and where their taxes are going.

'Accountability', a phrase not usually found in Marxist textbooks, has emerged as the new buzzword.

It has even cropped up in government speeches and the headlines of the state press. And within the Communist Party itself, intense debate is under way about its future as it grapples with falling foreign investment and tough new export competition.

Last summer marked the first outbreak of peasant unrest for years. Swift, surprisingly open changes have been made to local governments and are likely to be the subject of considerable scrutiny in the months ahead.

Vietnam is now ruled by men who do not date back to earliest revolutionary struggles of the 1930s and who cannot rely so easily on the old rhetoric.

New party General-Secretary General Le Kha Phieu, Prime Minister Phan Van Khai and President Tran Duc Luong must find new tricks to deal with new problems if they are to prolong the party's grip on power.

While stopping far short of the wholesale social and economic reforms the West continues to demand, efforts are being made to bring the Government more in line with the people, seasoned analysts believe.

General Phieu, for one, has surprised many by being far more flexible than his career as a tough-talking commissar would suggest. He has, however, been a key orchestrator of an economic policy in which stability rather than unbridled reform is paramount.

'Vietnam is bubbling below the surface now and the next few months are going to be fascinating indeed,' one veteran Hanoi diplomat said.

'The leadership is showing signs of change, partly of course because it has to, but there have been all manner of developments nonetheless.

'We will soon see if they have not been enough . . . the peasants have made that very clear.'