Vietnamese Rulers Dig In

Constitutional crisis signals deep split in ranks over ideology

FACING new crisis and doubt, Vietnam's unruly ruling communists are trying to reform and survive.

The National Assembly will meet later this month to overhaul the country's Constitution. Changes will be aimed at fighting widespread corruption and inefficiency, reasserting party control, entrenching economic reforms, and streamlining the government.

Yet, as the Vietnam Communist Party opens the economy to the free market but rejects challenges to its monopoly of power, officials admit they face a tough job to revamp the organization.

Rifts between aging hard-liners and young reformers are deepening. The communists' popular support, anchored for years by nationalist opposition to France, the United States, and China, has eroded, officials say.

Hanoi expects resistance from the bureaucracy and independent-minded provinces as the government reaffirms its dominance.

"By making changes in the Constitution we want to bring back discipline and order in the provinces. Often, in the past, they have acted according to their will and not the central laws," admits Phung Van Tuu, National Assembly vice chairman and a lawyer who helped draft the new laws.

"Putting the words into effect will be difficult," he adds. "It will take us several years to retrain the state civil servants how to manage more skillfully." Party rift

The new Constitution could further divide the party in a Vietnam haunted by crumbling world communism and seeping democratic sentiments.

"They know the cyclone is coming," says a Western analyst in Hanoi. The new Constitution "is a conflict of generations, a symptom of struggle within the government between the young who want change and the elders who block it. And this won't be the end of it."

Whether or how long Vietnam's communists can last is unclear, diplomats say.

In contrast to China, Vietnamese communists show readiness to accommodate a cautious measure of change and criticism. During the past six months, Do Muoi, party general secretary, has wooed restless intellectuals and students to head off further disenchantment.

"The relationship between the party and the people is a question of survival," Politburo member Vu Oanh wrote in the Army newspaper, Quan Doi Nhan Dan. The government, "faced with increasing demands and a social situation that is developing in a vast and complicated way, has shown many weaknesses."

Still, the air of introspection brooks no open challenge. Blunt critics or advocates of a quickening in Vietnam's wary process of change are expelled.

In December, for example, the party Central Committee censured its own newspaper, Nhan Dan, and its editor, Ha Dang, for failing to stop the well-publicized and embarrassing defection of deputy editor Bui Tin in 1990.

As a result of the defection, party recruitment has plummeted and people at all levels openly wonder what revolution and their past sacrifices have brought.

Increasingly, economic reform and capitalism, most of it centered in the cities, is supplanting socialism as the creed, creating problems that "the party has not been able to anticipate, let alone manage and control," Carlyle Thayer, an Australian specialist on Vietnam, wrote recently.

The party is also worried, Mr. Thayer says, about disgruntled Army veterans who in recent years, amid worsening economic woes and massive demobilization, have organized politically and demanded change. Before the Communist Party congress last summer, leaders retired hundreds of generals and colonels suspected of threatening their power.

"We came only with our guns and our knapsacks. Now, these officials have cars, videos, and big houses," a bicycle rickshaw owner, who was a communist guerrilla when Saigon fell in 1975, says as he peddles a visitor past a party official's house in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon. Military resists change

On the other hand, the hard-line military hierarchy has become a staunch foe of change and a threat to the party's limited reforms, Western observers say.

In a recent commentary, an influential military journal cautioned that "imperialist forces" were pursuing a new strategy to eliminate world socialism. "Our Vietnamese nation is one of their key sabotage targets."

In the provinces, the party wrestles with an enormous gap between central and local governments, Vietnamese and Western observers say. By giving Hanoi new overview powers under the Constitution, officials hope to rein in officials who run provinces as personal feifdoms.

Spurring the change are particularly severe problems in implementing a two-year-old national tax system, Mr. Tuu says.

"The central government has worked out a taxation law," he adds, "but in the provinces, they say they're not ready to levy taxes."

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