Obituary: Le Mai

Le Mai, the Deputy Foreign Minister of Vietnam, was one of his country's more able diplomats. He had been expected to become Hanoi's first ambassador to Washington or even to succeed as Foreign Minister. In either of these positions, he would have contributed to the process of Vietnam's emergence from its long years of international isolation.

A fluent speaker of English, Le Mai first gained experience of the outside world during the early 1970s as a member of the Vietnamese team which held lengthy, arduous negotiations in Paris with the Americans to put an end to their involvement in the war. However, the agreement signed in 1973 did not bring the peace and reconciliation many Vietnamese had hoped for. Nor did Hanoi's eventual victory two years on.

Vietnam soon became embroiled in another struggle, this time with neighbouring Cambodia, leading to its invasion of the country in 1978. Although Hanoi claimed this move was an act of self-defence as well as a humanitarian gesture in liberating the Cambodians from the barbarous rule of Pol Pot, Vietnamese diplomats had a hard time over the next decade justifying their country's continuing military presence in Cambodia. It was this issue which put Le Mai's skills to the test.

He was appointed Vietnamese ambassador to Thailand at a time when hostility between the two countries was at its height. Yet, even in the strained atmosphere of Bangkok, he made friends in diplomatic circles and the international press through his non-aggressive handling of the Cambodian issue. His task became easier after 1986 when the leadership in Hanoi adopted a policy of economic reform and more political flexibility. This was a course Le Mai clearly agreed with and he continued to pursue it on his return to Hanoi in 1990 to be appointed one of Vietnam's Deputy Foreign Ministers.

In this role he worked to improve relations with all the neighbouring countries of South East Asia grouped together in ASEAN (the Association of South East Asian Nations) as well as the United States. In negotiating with Washington, however, the main obstacle proved to be the issue of tracing those American servicemen still listed as missing in action following the end of the war. Once more Le Mai was called upon to exercise great diplomatic tact as one delegation after another from the United States descended on Hanoi demanding information.

Eventually he was to prove successful. Within the past two years, the Clinton administration has agreed to lift the long-standing American trade embargo on Vietnam and normalise diplomatic relations. At the same time Vietnam has been accepted as a member of ASEAN, with many diplomats in the region giving much of the credit for this achievement to the skilful diplomacy of Le Mai. Indeed they would have preferred to see him as Vietnam's Foreign Minister rather than the present somewhat stiff and doctrinaire incumbent.

On the other hand, during the past few years, Le Mai has made no secret of his poor health. Now it has proved fatal and the many friends he has made for Vietnam will be at a loss as to who to turn to, particularly as the country battens down its hatches in preparation for what looks like a very crucial Communist Party Congress.

Le Mai, politician: born Hue, Vietnam 1940; married (two children); died Hanoi 12 June 1996.