Mendicant Monk Thích Minh Tuệ Offers An Embarrassing Contrast To Vietnam Elites – Analysis


By Zachary Abuza

Early this month Vietnamese authorities forced an ascetic monk, Thích Minh Tuệ, who had become an internet sensation, to give up his seven-year cross-country trek. 

Authorities stressed that the barefoot mendicant monk, who attracted thousands of onlookers. was a threat to traffic safety. But his real crime was his humble lifestyle that stands in such stark contrast to the corruption scandals that have rocked Vietnam. 

Those include a $24 billion embezzlement case at Saigon Commercial Bank whose owner was sentenced to death

Six Politburo members, one-third of those elected at the 13th Congress in January 2021, were forced to resign between December 2022 and May 2024. These include two presidents, a deputy prime minister, the chairman of the National Assembly, and the head of the Communist Party’s day-to-day operations.

Đình Tiến Dũng has been relieved of his position as Hanoi party chief, indicating that the former minister of finance is likely to be the seventh member ousted from the Politburo.

In addition, 20 of the 180 Central Committee members (11%) elected in January 2021 have also been forced out, not to mention former ministers.

The irony that the man who appears to have come out on top after all crackdowns was the one filmed eating thousand-dollar gold encrusted steaks at a celebrity chef restaurant in London after laying a wreath at the grave of Karl Marx, is lost on no one.

That could have been career ending, but for To Lam, the former Minister of Public Security, the best defense was a good offense, and he took down each rival with efficient dispatch, in a display of unprecedented personal ambition in a system that prides itself on its collective leadership.

But Lam, now the president, was only doing the bidding of Nguyen Phu Trong, the Communist Party of Vietnam’s 80-year old general secretary, who has not taken any responsibility for the campaign that has not just caused political turmoil and rattled foreign investors, but has left the CPV institutionally weaker and delegitimized in the eyes of the public. 

Trong is correct in his assessment that corruption poses a threat to the party’s legitimacy and has made the “Blazing Furnace” campaign the centerpiece of his 13-year tenure.

Endemic corruption 

Corruption is endemic, and in many ways it’s growing worse. 

For foreign investors, corruption used to be predictable. But with some $36 billion in pledged investment in 2023 alone, and $11 billion in the first quarter of 2024, everyone is trying to get their cut. Corruption is coming from all directions and at all levels. It is no longer the lubricant to get deals done, but starting to become predatory and holding back growth.

It’s hard to see that the investigations of the senior leadership have been effective. In many ways, the party has made a mockery out of the allegations of corruption surrounding its leaders. 

To date, all six ousted Politburo members have been given soft landings; allowed to resign with a slight reprimand and keep their status, perks and wealth. No one has been criminally investigated.

Some have already enjoyed rehabilitations of sorts. Former president Nguyen Xuan Phuc has been photographed with other party leaders ahead of key meetings paying his respects at the tomb of Ho Chi Minh. 

Politically, Trong unleashed something that he lost control of. He stood by as comrades, including heir apparent Vuong Dinh Hue, were taken down one by one.

The “Blazing Furnace” anti-corruption campaign has also caused lasting damage to the party’s image.

If anything, the campaign exposed an unwelcome truth. It’s not one or two bad apples at the top. It’s all of them. 

One by one, the public saw the exposure of senior leaders who’ve been vetted by the system as they moved up through the ranks. Each of them had gotten wealthy through kickbacks, access to land or corporate holdings held by family and friends.

Short on expertise

While Trong believes that the party’s legitimacy comes through anti-corruption campaigns, in reality, legitimacy primarily comes through performance. 

The purge of experienced technocrats, the stocking of the Politburo with a disproportionate number of personnel – five  of 18 – who emerged from the control-oriented Ministry of Public Security, and the overall dearth of economic experience, does not bother Trong. 

There is an appalling lack of economic expertise amongst the senior leadership today; and it could be made worse once Dung is forced to resign. While newly appointed Politburo member Le Minh Hung has significant economic experience, he’s currently in charge of personnel for the Communist Party, he’ll be occupied with what is no small job ahead of the 14th Congress. 

Corruption investigations have led to a halt to much needed infrastructure spending, as mid-level bureaucrats are terrified of being investigated.

Although Vietnam still enjoys enviable GDP growth, the government is missing its target for a second year in a row, at a time when regional competitors are looking more attractive.

The churn in senior leadership has completely undermined the country’s selling point to foreign investors of being politically stable and predictable. A series of corporate and banking scandals have exposed the country’s weak regulatory capacity.

Targeting a handful of leaders will do nothing to change human nature. Corruption is endemic in Vietnam because of low government salaries, soft property rights, rent-seeking behavior, and a party that puts itself above the law. Without a free press and robust civil society, the government will always be unaccountable.

Truth teller arrested

The case of Truong Huy San drives this point home.

Better known by his pen name, Huy Duc, the independent journalist and influencer was arrested in early June. While the arrest was predicted, it was still a shock to many, given his close ties to many senior leaders. 

His recent broadsides on Lam and Trong may have been the last straw. 

On May 26, Duc posted an article on Facebook, titled “A Country Cannot Develop Based on Fear,” which criticized the weaponization of anti-corruption investigations that propelled Lam to the presidency and made him a leading contender to be the next party general secretary.

The appointment of Lam’s protege, Luong Tam Quang, as minister of public security, portends the continued use of anti-corruption investigations to target rivals

Two days later, Duc criticized Trong’s scorched-earth campaign as being insufficient and counterproductive.  

Charged under Article 331 of the vietnam Penal Code for “abusing democratic freedoms” and “infring[ing] on the interests of the state,” Duc was getting to a truth: without institutional and legal reforms, as well as freeing the media, no counter-corruption campaign can ever be successful. 

Contrary to strengthening the party, Trong has helped to delegitimize it, exposing the rot across the senior leadership, while at the same time slowing economic growth. He has also stifled civil society and independent media, which tries to hold the party leadership to account. 

Trong has blamed everyone but himself, as he continues to shape the party in the months ahead of the 14th Congress in early 2026. As he calls on others to account for the damage they have done to the party, he should hold himself to the same standard.

Rather than implementing institutional reforms, Trong is targeting an ascetic monk who has garnered a mass following by simply standing in stark contrast with the national leadership that, despite their pledged socialist ethos, has lost touch with their values and become mired in corruption.

Zachary Abuza is a professor at the National War College in Washington and an adjunct at Georgetown University. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the U.S. Department of Defense, the National War College, Georgetown University or Radio Free Asia.


Radio Free Asia’s mission is to provide accurate and timely news and information to Asian countries whose governments prohibit access to a free press. Content used with the permission of Radio Free Asia, 2025 M St. NW, Suite 300, Washington DC 20036.

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