Political Infighting Seen Behind Rare Call to Discipline Vietnam Politburo Member

Observers say the country’s party chief is removing obstacles to his political future.

Dinh La Thang attends the opening ceremony of the National Assembly in Hanoi, Oct. 20, 2016.

A recent proposal that a powerful top member of Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party be punished for misconduct while the head of state-run oil giant PetroVietnam came at the behest of the country’s party chief as part of a bid to secure his political future, according to observers.

Last week, the party’s Inspection Committee recommended that the Central Committee and Politburo consider disciplinary measures against Dinh La Thang, Communist Party secretary of Ho Chi Minh City, for greenlighting unregulated investments that caused PetroVietnam losses of nearly U.S. $40 million.

The committee also blamed Thang, a Politburo member, for failing to appropriately oversee four major projects while chairman of the board at PetroVietnam between 2009 and 2011, which led to their suspension and financial losses totaling hundreds of millions of dollars.

Thang was appointed transport minister in 2011, before being elected to Vietnam’s 19-member Politburo and appointed secretary of the Communist Party Organization of the country’s commercial capital Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon, early last year.

Pham Chi Dung, a Ho Chi Minh City-based reporter, told RFA’s Vietnamese Service that Thang is widely seen as a pawn in a struggle between General Secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam Nguyen Phu Trong and former Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung to cement their political standing.

“Many people believe there was a secret agreement between party chief Nguyen Phu Trong and former Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung at the 12th Party Congress [in January 2016] that saw Dung step down in exchange for some of his allies, like Thang, being elected to the Politburo,” he said.

“These secret arrangements are common in politics … Trong knows very well that even though Dung is retired, his shadow is still looming because his allies are still in the system and they have become an obstacle to Trong. He can’t sleep in peace.”

According to Pham Chi Dung, Trong “has to do something” with Dung’s allies in order to secure his political career.

“I think Dinh La Thang is just the beginning of something bigger,” he said.

“If you ask the public, they’ll say that it won’t end until Nguyen Tan Dung is targeted.”

Tuong Lai, the former director of the Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences, pointed out that Thang was repeatedly promoted, despite his involvement in serious wrongdoings while at PetroVietnam, suggesting that the Inspection Committee’s recommendation came as a result of political infighting.

“Even though Thang was responsible for all of the problems at PetroVietnam when he was [company] party chief and chairman from 2009 to 2011, he was still elected to the Politburo at the 12th Party Congress,” he said.

“Why, when his misconduct cost the national economy so much money and went on for so long, did they not discipline him earlier … Why are they now investigating past deeds to discipline him … I think this is part of internal fighting between political factions [loyal to Trong and Dung],” he added.

“These decisions all depend on who is currently wielding [political] power.”

The Party’s Central Committee will hold its twice-yearly meeting this month and could rule to discipline Thang by issuing him a warning, dismissing him from his post, or even stripping him of his party membership.

It is highly unusual for a member of Vietnam’s powerful Politburo to face sanctions.

Four other PetroVietnam officials have already been punished or warned as part of an investigation into business violations between 2009 and 2015, including Nguyen Xuan Son—the group’s former Communist Party chief—who was expelled from the party and arrested in July 2015.

Reported by Cat Linh for RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Translated by Viet Ha. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.