Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang dead at 61

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(FILES) In this file photo taken March 23, 2018, Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang greets journalists as he waits for the arrival of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (not pictured) at the Presidential Palace. Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang dies on September 21 at the age of 61 after a prologued illness, state run media reported. MINH HOANG / POOL / AFP

Vietnam’s President Tran Dai Quang, a former police chief known as a tough politician and committed communist with little tolerance for dissent, died Friday at age 61 after a serious illness, state media reported.

His death is not likely to dramatically alter politics in a country where the powerful communist government oversees almost every facet of society — although the death of a sitting leader is rare.

Coverage on state media was sombre Friday, with a Vietnam Television anchor in dark clothing announcing the news of the leader’s death, first reported by the official Vietnam News Agency.

A member of Quang’s staff confirmed his death to AFP.

The president had sought treatment in Japan for over a year before he was checked into hospital on Thursday afternoon after contracting a “rare virus”, Nguyen Quoc Trieu, in charge of the healthcare committee for top leaders, said in state media.

In office as president since April 2016 after more than four decades at the powerful Ministry of Public Security (MPS), Quang had a reputation as a hardliner.

Though he held one of the country’s top four positions and was officially the head of state, his role was seen as largely ceremonial, greeting visiting leaders and hosting diplomatic events in a bid to boost Vietnam’s profile on the world stage.

Quang, also a politburo member, had appeared thin and pale in public in recent months and was unstable on his feet last week when he hosted a welcoming ceremony for Indonesian President Joko Widodo in Hanoi.

His last public appearance was just two days ago at a meeting with visiting Chinese politicians and foreign dignitaries.

Public profile
His death is not likely to shake up politics in the one-party state, which prides itself on stable, consensus-based leadership and where the dramas that are rumoured to play out in the corridors of power are rarely aired publicly.

“It will not lead to any ruffles in leadership or any tensions,” Vietnam expert Carl Thayer told AFP Friday.

Born October 12, 1956 in northern Ninh Binh province, Quang joined the police academy as a young man and went on to study at the College of Foreign Language in Hanoi. He has been a communist party member since 1980.

He joined the security ministry in 1975 and steadily climbed the ranks of the shadowy yet powerful institution, which heads up the country’s secret police and intelligence.

Despite his reputation as an influential politician, Quang often appeared uncomfortable in the public eye and lacked the charisma of his peers in the party’s upper echelons.

In an interview with AFP in 2016, Quang read from a prepared statement and was quickly escorted out by staff when questions went off-script.

Dissident crackdown
His time in office was underpinned by a simmering conflict with Beijing over the South China Sea, a long-running dispute between the communist neighbours that escalated on several occasions during his presidency.

But Beijing paid tribute to Quang Friday, with foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang calling him “an outstanding leader… (who) made important contributions to the national development of reform and opening up in Vietnam”.

Quang also threw his weight behind an anti-corruption campaign that critics said was designed to eliminate political foes.

But his primary role was as the administration’s public face at high-profile events, notably at an APEC meeting in Danang in November last year where he hosted a bevy of world leaders — including US President Donald Trump and Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

Some paid respects to Quang online Friday, but emotional outpourings were largely absent.

“People don’t care that much because they’re more focused on making ends meet… and they’ve lost trust in this regime,” the head of Vietnam’s independent journalist association Pham Chi Dung told AFP.

As president, Quang also oversaw a crackdown on dissidents, with more than 40 jailed this year alone.

It earned him a bruised reputation that is likely to resonate among critics outside Vietnam.

“He was basically at the top of the apparatus of repression that silences voices,” Andrea Giorgetta of the International Federation for Human Rights told AFP.

Quang is survived by his wife and two sons.

There was no immediate announcement about when his funeral will take place, though the government is certain to host a state service for him.