To Lam’s Ambitious Ascent In Vietnam – Analysis


By David Brown

Nguyen Phu Trong has led the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) — the nation’s only legal political organisation — for an unprecedented three five-year terms as its general secretary. The CPV’s 14th Congress will convene in 18 months to reconfirm its doctrine and renew its leadership. It appears a given that Trong, now 80 years old and ailing, will retire then.

Trong is finding it difficult to orchestrate the selection of a worthy successor. His signature achievement is a long-running campaign to root out corrupt and ideologically suspect CPV cadres. From 2016 to June 2022, 17,000 cases of corruption or abuse of position were punished — and there still seems to be plenty of fuel for Trong’s allegorical ‘fiery furnace’.

But now, the rules of the purge have been weaponised — and not by Trong, but by a subordinate, State President and former minister for public security To Lam. Apparently intent on succeeding Trong as CPV leader, Lam has bent the rules to weed out rivals for the post of general secretary. Six of Lam’s 15 Politburo colleagues from the beginning of 2023 have now been deposed.

First, 5 January 2023 saw the removals of Pham Binh Minh, the deputy prime minister for foreign affairs, and Vu Duc Dam, deputy prime minister for health, education and social welfare. And then, two weeks later on the eve of the Lunar New Year, state president and former prime minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc was removed.

Because all three had distinguished themselves in government, it seemed plausible that they had been judged insufficiently ‘red’ — that is, not firmly committed to CPV principles. Yet that wasn’t what had happened. Instead, for the first time at this level of government, their dismissals were explained as the consequence of failures to exercise proper supervision of subordinates. They were accused of failing to adequately supervise officials who profited from COVID-19-era schemes to create a monopoly for made-in-Vietnam test kits and to charge extortionate fees for seats on repatriation flights.

In March 2024, the Politburo’s youngest member, Vo Van Thuong, was forced out. Thuong had succeeded Phuc as state president and was widely believed to be Trong’s planned successor as general secretary. Thuong’s dismissal was also blamed on ‘failure to exercise proper supervision’. Police investigators had reportedly found evidence that officials subordinate to Thuong had received bribes from contractors a decade earlier, when Thuong was a provincial CPV secretary.

Scarcely a month later in April 2024, another Trong favourite, National Assembly chairman Vuong Dinh Hue, was forced to resign. Like Thuong, Hue was known as a favourite of the CPV leader. Again, the rap was ‘failure to properly supervise subordinates’ who had received kickbacks from a contractor for major infrastructure projects. No effort was made to demonstrate that Hue, any more than Thuong, had been aware of his former subordinates’ misconduct.

Truong Thi Mai, the head of the CPV’s Secretariat and highly influential in party affairs, pre-emptively submitted her resignation in mid-May 2024. It is not clear why. Mai is another person who might have been chosen to lead the CPV.

Attention shifted to To Lam, who had served as minister of public security since 2016 and who stood to benefit from the dismissal of rival candidates for leadership of the CPV. Lam had unique access to reports compiled by police branches at the national, provincial and district levels throughout Vietnam.

Vietnam’s police units have been diligent in collecting dirt on every official that might stand in the way of Lam’s rise to the top of the Vietnamese party-state. Lam has evidently wielded police dossiers effectively to blight the aspirations of his rivals.

At least one viable competitor for the CPV’s top job remains — Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh, who has not yet betrayed an ambition to be the next general secretary. A longer shot is Luong Cuong, the top political commissar of Vietnam’s armed forces.

As the CPV’s Central Committee completed a weeklong meeting on 17 May 2024, To Lam was announced as Vo Van Thuong’s successor as state president. Credible rumours have it that Lam argued he should remain minister of public security — Vietnam’s top law enforcement officer — while serving concurrently as state president, but he was overruled.

The question is whether, having been elevated to the high profile but relatively toothless job of state president, Lam is still a formidable contender for the CPV’s top job of general secretary. Much obviously depends on whether Lam can continue to command the loyalties of senior officials at the Ministry of Public Security until the CPV’s 14th Congress convenes in January 2026.

Police Lieutenant General Luong Tam Quang was appointed on 6 June 2024 to lead the Ministry of Public Security in To Lam’s stead. From 2019, Quang was To Lam’s principal deputy at the Ministry of Public Security. His promotion seems to assure Lam’s continued influence in the ministry he led for so long.

To Lam’s rise to secretary general is not yet assured. Yet his weeding out of rivals through his state security apparatus — plus his elevation to state president — place him in a strong position. Nguyen Phu Trong may not yet have an official successor, but there is no denying Lam’s ambition.

  • About the author: David Brown is a former US diplomat with extensive experience in Southeast Asia and particularly Vietnam.
  • Source: This article was published by East Asia Forum

East Asia Forum

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