HONG KONG >> Phan Van Khai, a Soviet-trained Vietnamese prime minister who helped his country transition away from a state-dominated economy and build a stronger relationship with the United States, died March 17 in Ho Chi Minh City. He was 84.
Khai’s death was widely reported this week in Vietnam’s state-controlled news media. Nhan Dan, the official newspaper of the country’s governing Communist Party, reported that the cause was old age.
Khai, who served as prime minister from 1997 to 2006, had more formal training in economics than previous prime ministers, but also “a practical knowledge that was closely linked to the economic life of the people,” said Le Dang Doanh, one of his former economic advisers.
Among other accomplishments, Khai helped Vietnam weather the impacts of the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98, Doanh said. He also endorsed a landmark 1999 law that made it easier for ordinary people to open businesses, Doanh added, and played a central role in negotiating Vietnam’s 2007 entry into the World Trade Organization.
In 2005, a decade after Vietnam and the United States normalized diplomatic relations, Khai became the first prime minister of a unified Vietnam to visit Washington.
“We have a population of 80 million people, which means a huge market for American businesses,” he told reporters after meeting President George W. Bush at the White House. “And these people are also very hardworking, creative and dynamic.”
By 2016, Vietnam’s population had climbed to about 93 million, and the value of trade with the United States had increased to $45 billion from $451 million in 1995.
Economic and security ties have grown in recent years between the two former adversaries, in part because leaders on both sides see a stronger relationship as a bulwark against growing Chinese political and economic influence.
Daniel J. Kritenbrink, U.S. ambassador to Vietnam, said Tuesday in a statement that Khai’s 2005 White House visit “helped our two nations overcome our painful past and realize the unlimited possibilities of our bright future together.”
“A humble but persistent reformer, his work will influence Vietnam for generations to come,” Kritenbrink said.
Phan Van Khai was born on Dec. 25, 1933, in the Cu Chi district of Ho Chi Minh City, then called Saigon, according to the Vietnamese news media. He later studied economics and foreign languages at Plekhanov, a university in Moscow, and from 1965 to 1971 worked for Vietnam’s state Planning Committee.
Khai was “sent to the southern battlefields” toward the end of the war against the United States, the state news media reported, without elaborating, and he later began rising through the ranks of Ho Chi Minh City’s Communist Party bureaucracy.
He eventually became chairman of the city’s powerful People’s Committee and then a deputy prime minister.
Huong Le Thu, an expert on Asian security at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra, said in an email that Khai played a central role in advancing the “Doi Moi,” or “Open Door,” policies that Vietnam began putting in place in the late 1980s to bolster postwar growth.
Khai’s policies on economic integration with foreign countries transcended the Communist Party’s ideology and a friend-versus-foe Cold War mentality, she added.
Quan Hoang Vuong, an expert on Vietnam’s postwar economic history and director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Social Research in Hanoi, the capital, said that Khai was widely respected for “not just his efforts in bringing prosperity to the country, but also his dignity.”
“After resigning, unlike many other ex-leaders, he stayed completely quiet and never tried to show that ‘I am the strong man,’” he said.
Khai is survived by a son, Phan Minh Hoan, and a daughter, Phan Thi Bach Yen. Their ages could not be independently verified.
After Khai’s death last Saturday, the government announced a two-day period of national mourning, during which all entertainment events were canceled or suspended.
Khai received a state funeral Thursday morning at Reunification Palace in Ho Chi Minh City, the former presidential palace of South Vietnam. A red-and-gold Vietnamese flag was draped over his coffin. The guest list included Nguyen Xuan Phuc, the prime minister, and Nguyen Phu Trong, the Communist Party’s secretary-general.
Khai was buried later Thursday in Cu Chi, his home district on the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City, beside his wife, Nguyen Thi Sau, who died in 2012.