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New team from south takes reins in Vietnam

HANOI -- Three decades after the Communist north reunited the country with its victory in the Vietnam War, reformers from the business-oriented south are taking the reins as president and prime minister.

Nguyen Tan Dung , 56, yesterday became Vietnam's youngest prime minister since reunification in 1975. He had long been groomed for the job, building a record of fostering growth in recent years while having responsibility for the economy as deputy prime minister.

Vietnam's National Assembly also endorsed the nominee for president, Nguyen Minh Triet , 63, the Communist Party chief for Ho Chi Minh City, who is known for his tough stance against corruption.

Both were the sole candidates in the collective-leadership style of this Communist-ruled country, and each got more than 90 percent of the vote.

``This is an honor, but also a heavy responsibility the party and people assigned to me," Triet said in accepting the largely ceremonial post of president.

The National Assembly cleared the way for the new guard over the weekend by approving the resignations of Prime Minister Phan Van Khai, 72, President Tran Duc Luong, 69, and National Assembly Chairman Nguyen Van An, 69.

As prime minister, Dung will oversee the day-to-day workings of the government, but the country's most powerful position is the Communist Party chief. A northerner, Nong Duc Manh , 65, was re elected party leader in April.

Vietnam's leadership has been reorganizing to bring in younger members, and the two new leaders both hail from the more open and industrious south, where they have experience dealing with Western and regional investors and leaders. Among their first tasks will be serving as hosts for the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Hanoi in November and ushering Vietnam into the World Trade Organization, expected later this year.

The government, isolated and poverty-stricken after the Vietnam War ended, began reforms in the mid-1980s to move toward a market economy. Foreign investment and trade have exploded in recent years, and businesses now thrive throughout the country of 84 million people.

``They've finished a great first half, and the next team has got to come on and complete it," said Carlyle Thayer, a specialist on Vietnamese politics at the Australian Defense Force Academy. ``There's no further big goals for Vietnam to achieve other than being successful."

The ease in the shift to younger leaders reflects the relative lack of personal power in the outgoing generation. No Vietnamese politician has led a powerful personality cult since the death of widely revered revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh in 1969.

Dung, a former central bank governor from southernmost Ca Mau province, has a military background that dates to age 12 when he was a messenger for the Viet Cong guerillas fighting US-backed South Vietnam. He later battled American troops during the war.

Dung climbed the Communist ranks to become party chief in Kien Giang province in the late 1980s and was appointed deputy prime minister in 1997. He also served as the central bank governor from 1998 to 1999, when the country's banking system was in turmoil.

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