General Le Kha Phieu has spoken at last. Vietnam's most powerful leader emerged yesterday into the international spotlight to defend socialism and firm Communist Party rule. In his first formal meeting with foreign reporters since becoming party General Secretary in December, General Phieu - one of Vietnam's most shadowy political figures - said capitalism was not the answer to Vietnam's troubles. 'We see that our political regime is suitable to Vietnam's people. Vietnam will not replace its political regime with capitalism,' said General Phieu, who two years ago told top military officers that Western-style capitalism was 'obsolete'. 'When we say we will not accept capitalism it does not mean that we won't learn from it, and it does not mean that we will not have relations with capitalist countries. 'We have learned from capitalism the way to have riches . . . we have learned good experiences from other countries and if they are suitable we will apply them to Vietnam.' Observers said the eloquent general appeared relaxed, avuncular and eager to talk, answering questions as to why he had taken so long before giving himself international exposure. 'Ideas are not bullets to him . . . he loves to talk and defend communism,' said one of the few diplomats to meet him. The 67-year-old three-star general, who has spent 50 years as a leading political officer in some of Vietnam's toughest battlefields, merely chuckled when asked about the enigma that surrounds him. He did little to destroy the mystery when invited to pigeon-hole himself politically. 'In Vietnam there is no such thing as a reform faction or a conservative faction . . . there is only one faction which helps the country's development,' General Phieu said. 'Put those terms in your pocket and forget about them. You can't look at Vietnam like that. I might be an ABC man on economics, but that doesn't mean I do not know about economic issues.' General Phieu also went further than most leaders on the sensitive issue of Cambodia, where he spent five years as chief commissar in Vietnam's occupying forces and is understood to have built a relationship with strongman Hun Sen. The general said he hoped July's elections would be 'open and democratic'.