Slew of senior Vietnamese officials toppled as anti-graft drive raises questions about internal party conflict

The case that drew most recent controversy involves Phan Van Anh Vu (centre), a property tycoon from the central city of Danang accused of revealing state secrets. PHOTO: AFP

BANGKOK - One was a property developer-cum-intelligence officer who fled Vietnam only to be deported back to his home country.

Another was a Lexus-driving former state enterprise executive who sought asylum in Germany, but was allegedly kidnapped to face charges in a Vietnamese court.

A slew of senior officials in Vietnam have been dismissed or charged with wrongdoing over the past few months in what has been billed a sharp crackdown on corruption, but also seen as a political purge. Vietnam's communist party chief Nguyen Phu Trong last month hailed the anti-graft effort.

"Serious corruption and economic cases, even those relating to high-level officials and retired leaders, have been resolved under party regulations and state laws," he was cited by Vietnamese media as saying.

Officials and businessmen linked to state enterprises are being scrutinised for past business conduct. In August last year, for example, deputy minister for industry and trade Ho Thi Kim Thoa, 57, was removed for violating business regulations when she headed a former state-owned lighting equipment firm called Dien Quang Lamp before 2010. In September last year, a former banking executive was sentenced to death for embezzlement, abuse of power and economic mismanagement.

But the case that drew most recent controversy involves Phan Van Anh Vu, a 42-year-old property tycoon from the central city of Danang accused of revealing state secrets.

Vu, who was also reportedly a lieutenant-colonel in the powerful Ministry of Public Security, was arrested in Singapore for entering the Republic with a fake identity and deported to Hanoi on Thursday (Jan 4).

Vietnamese authorities are looking into his numerous property dealings in Danang, a booming coastal city which recently hosted global leaders in the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit.

On Wednesday (Jan 3), Mr Truong Quang Nghia, the party chief of Danang, was asked by retired government officials how the city could be improved and transgressors could be held accountable for their wrongdoing - in an apparent reference to Vu and his properties.

Mr Nghia was quoted by Soha news website as saying: "The point of view of the party committee is that all those properties should be turned into public assets and public land for cultural use. Those properties are not allowed to be sold."

Mr Nghia was appointed party secretary in October last year (2017) after Mr Nguyen Xuan Anh, a rising political star, was fired from the same post. According to the VN Express news website, Mr Anh, 42, was accused by the Communist Party's central inspection committee for making decisions without consulting with his colleagues, as well as accepting a car and two houses gifted by local companies. He is said to be close to Vu.

Analysts and observers interviewed by The Straits Times noted how Vietnam's political system is occupied by different factions with each maintaining their own streams of income.

"People from inside and outside of Vietnam can see some kind of political infighting here," Dr Ha Hoang Hop, the chairman of Think Tank Viet Know consultancy, told The Straits Times.

While officials have not specified what state secret Vu is accused of leaking, he is said to have information relating to an allegedly state-directed kidnapping of a Vietnamese fugitive from Berlin last year.

Trinh Xuan Thanh, 51, who used to chair a subsidiary of state oil giant PetroVietnam, fled the country amid mounting graft allegations and was seeking asylum in Germany when he was forced into a vehicle and brought back to Vietnam to face charges. The former provincial administrator was accused of causing some US$150 million in losses through financial mismanagement.

While Vietnam police says Thanh turned himself in, Germany accused Vietnam's intelligence service and embassy of orchestrating the kidnap and expelled its intelligence officer.

Thanh was apprehended just two months after another former PetroVietnam executive, Dinh La Thang, 57, was sacked from his position as party secretary of Ho Chi Minh City, as well as removed from the elite politburo. He was accused of mismanagement and similarly racking up losses during his time at the state enterprise.

On Monday (Jan 8), Thang, Thanh, as well as 20 other former executives of PetroVietnam will be tried in a Hanoi court on charges of embezzlement and mismanagement.

But the crackdown does not convince political watchers like Mr Nguyen Anh Tuan, a human rights activist and political observer from Danang, who laments the lack of systematic effort to improve transparency in the government.

"It implies that internal party conflict is escalating," he told The Straits Times. "They can't handle this internal conflict inside the party anymore."

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