Vo Van Kiet: Reformist Vietnamese premier

In his younger days Vo Van Kiet fought against both the French imperial troops who occupied Vietnam up until the 1950s and the forces of the United States and the South Vietnamese government. In both cases he was on the winning side. But it was for another triumphant struggle – a battle he fought against his own country's political isolation and rigid economic dogma – that he will best be remembered.

Kiet served as Vietnam's prime minister between 1991 and 1997 – a period of remarkable transformation for the South-east Asian country, for which he was largely responsible. As premier, he was behind a number of policies designed to attract billions of dollars in foreign investment, expand foreign trade and push the economy to grow at an annual rate of more than 8 per cent.

Like many others who saw the potential for growth that could be achieved by loosening government controls, he grew impatient with the Communist Party machinery around him and with individuals who were trying to protect their own interests within the hierarchy. A key proponent of the "doi moi" or renewal economic reforms, he argued that the party could only remain relevant and in control if it loosened its hold over businesses, allowing them to become more efficient. Last year he told a BBC interviewer: "The motherland of Vietnam doesn't belong to one person, one party or one group only."

Coming to prominence in the late 1980s, when he was one of several reformers concerned about the near-collapse of his country's economy, Kiet pushed for the transition of the highly centralised, Soviet-style system to one that would allow private businesses and encourage entrepreneurs. On becoming premier in 1991 he sought to streamline the government, make investment easier and draw up modern laws. Pointedly, he also worked to normalise relations with the United States, even though his first wife and two children had allegedly been killed by US troops. This was finally done in 1995.

Kiet was not without his critics. Some said he did not act quickly or decisively enough to get rid of the bureaucracy and claimed some potential investors were put off once they investigated the real situation on the ground. On the other hand, many within his party criticised him after he issued a memo in 1995 that called for even bolder reforms. In 1997 he stood down, saying that his country needed to be led by someone from the younger generation. As it was, he was replaced by his former deputy, Phan Van Khai. After leaving office, Kiet continued to be active as both an adviser to the party and as an outspoken commentator, calling for further reforms.

The man who rose to lead his nation was born Phan Van Hoa in humble circumstances in southern Mekong Delta. He changed his name and as a teenager he joined revolutionary Communist forces opposed to French rule and became a member of the regional party in 1939. After the French forces were beaten in 1954, the party focused on seeking to reunite the country that had been divided under the peace agreement. Kiet was given the underground role of party secretary in the area around Saigon. He also became a senior political leader of the Viet Cong and had a key role in planning the insurgency.

His reward came after 1975 when Communist forces captured the city and Kiet was appointed to a number of senior positions. The task he was set by his party was to establish socialist reform in a city that had been a bastion of capitalism. However, his natural instinct was to introduce changes gradually and free enterprise continued to flourish. Indeed, such was the criticism that faced him at the time, a party hardliner was brought into the south to speed up socialist changes. Kiet in turn was transferred to Hanoi, where he began re-establishing himself, working his way up through the hierarchy.

In his private life, Kiet was a keen sports fan who played tennis and – like many of his countrymen – was a passionate follower of football. His second wife, Phan Luong Cam, a scientist, once described the former prime minister as a forgetful romantic whose favourite food was a pungent type of dried fish.

Andrew Buncombe

Phan Van Hoa (Vo Van Kiet), politician: born Trung Hiêp, Vietnam 23 November 1922; Prime Minister of Vietnam 1991-97; twice married (two children deceased); died Singapore 11 June 2008.

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