More than one ancient creature in Vietnam met a demise of sorts at the outset of 2016. The death of the first last month, a giant softback turtle that had inhabited Hoan Kiem Lake in the centre of Hanoi, deeply saddened Vietnam.
Called “Great Grandpa” and reputedly about 100 years old, the passing on January 19 of this venerated and critically endangered creature made the capital’s cold and clammy winter seem even more dismal.
It was viewed as a dark omen and brought a sense of foreboding to the nation’s leaders, several of whom appear to think that, like some mythical beast, they might live and retain their political clout forever.
Alas, no. The Grim Reaper struck again: In one of the most shocking displays of political assassination in modern times, Vietnam’s Prime Minister was dispatched, proverbially speaking, to join Great Grandpa.
This gruesome tragi-comedy unfolded in Hanoi last month when the sombre death of Hoan Kiem’s giant turtle presaged the start of a leadership congress for the long-ruling Vietnam Communist Party (VCP).
These five-yearly meetings, which are highly secretive and verboten to the press, are planned meticulously and candidates for senior posts are decided in advance so that the actual voting is normally a formality.
Not this year. It could have been the curse of Great Grandpa, or just the way geriatric male politicians often overestimate their strength, but for sure things did not go according to plan. In fact, it was an earthquake, and the political landscape of Vietnam has changed in a profound and deeply retrograde way. To understand how, it helps to get a few things straight from the start.
First, before the congress began, it was known that the normally monolithic VCP was divided by a conflict between the party chief, Nguyen Phu Trong, 71, and the prime minister, Nguyen Tan Dung, 66.
Due to their age, the two men - who always disliked each other - were technically barred from contesting again for a top post; but they both sought special dispensations.
Hanoi-born Trong, a colourless apparachik with a mildly pro-Beijing outlook and a grandfatherly demeanour that appeals to fossilised partymen, got his dispensation and thus won the right to bid to retain his job.
That was a blow to the more dynamic PM Dung, who is from the deep south and who was itching to become party chief and thus be able to accelerate much-needed economic reforms that Trong has stymied.
Dung’s arrogant manner, however, coupled with the way his cronies have bankrupted a couple of state-owned conglomerates and the way he has enriched himself and his family, inflamed traditional party cadres.
One by one his loyalists in the Politburo, the party’s most powerful body, turned against him; indeed, even his once-favoured pupil, DPM Nguyen Xuan Phuc, deserted him.
So, when the official list of candidates was revealed for positions in the party’s key Central Committee, whose members choose the next Politburo, PM Dung’s name was missing.
It was a bombshell. Never before has a Vietnamese prime minister, seeking to retain high office been told he cannot even contest a lower post.
The humiliation was not only for the PM, but for legions of his reformist followers in the party, especially in economically vibrant Ho Chi Minh City and the southern Mekong delta region from where Dung hails.
Flustered and furious, the PM’s foot soldiers then tried to circumvent their elders by lobbying among delegates on the floor of the congress to get Dung’s name re-nominated.
It the kind of thing that might occur at an American political convention, but was unheard of in Vietnam. Of course, it was not allowed because Trong’s ageing stalwarts deemed it to be against party rules.
That decision forced Dung to reject the re-nomination move. Still, his angry do-or-die backers did not give up. They urged delegates to vote down Dung’s forced rejection so that he might reapply for the Central Committee and then battle Trong for the top job.
It was never on. The anti-PM cadres, especially those from the North, who have always scorned the uppity southerner Dung, held firm. On January 28, in a dramatic move, they approved the rejection of his nomination.
Instantly, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung of Vietnam was gone. The curtain came down on him as abruptly as it had on Great Grandpa.
He will be replaced by his former sidekick, Deputy Prime Minister Phuc, while a Trong favourite, the tough public security minister Tran Dai Quang, another northerner, will become president, replacing southerner Truong Tan Sang.
Indeed, in a rout of the country’s southern reformists, more than two-thirds of the new 19-member politburo are hardline northern conservatives. Other key “liberals” like DPM Vu Duc Dam have been sidelined, while the upper echelons of power have been stacked with Trong loyalists, including four police generals.
Thus, any moves toward political openness under the new regime appear to be a non-starter. It is back to the past for one of the region’s biggest and most powerful countries.
And it is a slap in the face for the United States, which has been courting Vietnam with promises of more military aid, provided the human rights situation improves. Few expect that to happen now.
Meanwhile, Hanoi is abuzz with talk that a masoleum is being built for Great Grandpa, and that underneath the beast’s embalmed corpse, a tin mug bearing the ashes of Dung’s party card will be placed. Yes, it’s a funny old world, but we have to keep going.