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Police and military seen gaining power amid Vietnamese political upheaval

HO CHI MINH CITY, VIETNAM — Political turbulence in Vietnam has increased the power of the police and military factions of the country’s Communist Party, as officials with these backgrounds gain seats in the top echelons of the government, experts have told VOA.

Activists and analysts interviewed point to To Lam – the former public security minister who took over as president on May 18 – as a rising figure who could pose a threat to the party’s collective leadership.

Zachary Abuza, Southeast Asia expert and professor at the National War College in Washington, described Lam as “ruthlessly ambitious,” during a June 3 call with VOA.

As public security minister Lam led 80-year-old General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong’s key initiative – what Trong dubbed the “blazing furnace” anti-corruption campaign.

“To Lam has wielded that anti-corruption campaign to systematically remove one competitor after another,” Abuza said.

Vietnam’s collective leadership is based on “four pillars” at the top of the political structure: the general secretary, president, prime minister, and chairman of the National Assembly, the country’s unicameral legislature. Since January 2023, anti-corruption investigations have led to the downfall of two presidents and the National Assembly chairman.

Truong Thi Mai is the most recent top official to leave her post. The former head of the Central Organization Committee and permanent member of the party secretariat was the fifth-ranking leader. She was accused of breaking party regulations and resigned on May 16.

An analyst, who asked that his name be withheld because of increasing uncertainty regarding the potential pitfalls of discussing Vietnamese politics, told VOA on June 4 that such turbulent politics is new for the party. He added that the situation is unpredictable and will likely remain volatile until the next meeting of the National Assembly in 2026, when a new leader is expected to take over from Trong.

“In the past 60 years not a single four pillar leader in Vietnam has stepped down and within only two years to have three of the four pillars step down and then a permanent member of the secretariat also step down – this is unprecedented in the history of Vietnamese Communist Party,” he said.

To Lam’s rise

Alexander Vuving, a professor at Honolulu’s Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, told VOA that Luong Tam Quang, who was appointed to replace Lam as public security minister on June 6, is an ally of the new president.

“To Lam has not subsided after Lam left the ministry,” Vuving wrote in an email to VOA on June 7.

Duy Hoang, executive director of the unsanctioned Vietnamese political party Viet Tan, said that after To Lam became president on May 18, there was a “big internal struggle” for approximately two weeks during which there were attempts to nominate a public security minister without ties to Lam. With Quang’s appointment, the efforts to neutralize Lam’s power failed, he said.

Quang “is seen as an ally to To Lam because he’s from Hung Yen which is where To Lam is from,” Hoang said, referring to the country’s northern province.

“It shows that To Lam is continuing to consolidate power,” he said.

Along with leading a “crackdown against peaceful dissent,” Hoang said, Lam is known for arranging the kidnapping of whistleblower Trinh Xuan Thanh from Germany in 2017 and for being photographed eating a gold-encrusted steak at a high-end London restaurant in 2021.

Before the pricey meal, the communist leader visited Karl Marx’s tomb in London.

“The irony that the last guy standing after an anti-corruption purge is the guy eating a $1,000 gold-leaf steak after laying a wreath for Karl Marx,” Abuza said. “Increasingly he just wielded his sword and took out rivals until he was the last man standing.”

David Hutt, a research fellow at the Central European Institute of Asian Studies in Slovakia, struck a similar chord in a May 20 email to VOA, although he predicted a period of stability until the party’s 2026 National Congress.

“There were so few people in the Politburo who met the conditions to become state president that To Lam was almost certain to get this post. Plus, the Communist Party needs stability in the top-four posts, and To Lam is unlikely to be busted as part of the anti-corruption campaign (although corruption allegations swirl around him),” Hutt wrote.

Those now in top spots will probably stay there until the 2026 Congress, he said, adding, “The securocrats and the military factions are the clear winner. The Communist Party is becoming more security con[s]cious and is very concerned about its power.”

Beyond Quang, Vietnam’s Politburo – the country’s top decision-making body – is now dominated by individuals from the Public Security Ministry, and the military makes up the second-largest bloc, Abuza said, describing the domination of a “very conservative security-minded bloc.”

Weakened Communist Party

The analyst who asked for his name to be withheld said “the situation now is very precarious for the party itself.”

“The power of the party is you have to control the gun in order to control the party. But now it seems like the gun has actually taken control of the party,” he said, referring to the rising power of the Public Security Ministry.

Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, a Vietnamese activist living in Texas since obtaining U.S. asylum in 2018, cited a general unease among her contacts in Vietnam.

“I think that everyone is scared,” she wrote to VOA over the messaging app Telegram on June 8.

“To Lam will continue to control the country under his own regime,” she wrote.

An Hai of VOA’s Vietnamese Service contributed reporting from Washington.

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