Profile : No Fear of Reform : In Vietnam, Ngo Ba Thanh is working on reforming her nation’s legal system so as to clear the path for foreign investors. But it will not be an easy road.


Madame Ngo Ba Thanh has a business card that reads like a recipe for success. Three times the size of any ordinary card, it lists these essential ingredients: a masters of comparative law from Columbia University and doctorates of law from the universities of Barcelona and Paris.

Next, blend in her experience as former chair of the law-drafting Legislative Committee of Vietnam’s National Assembly, or Parliament.

The result is a powerful potion of legal proficiency.

Thanh, 61, is considered one of the precious cultural bridges between the Western world and Vietnam. As an independent consultant in international comparative law, she’s been educating potential foreign investors about Vietnam’s legal system and promoting a new Vietnamese women’s organization.


Under the banner of doi moi , or economic renovation, the Vietnamese government is making a concerted effort to encourage production, exports and foreign investment. Washington is also easing its long diplomatic isolation of Vietnam.

The result is a relative boom in Viet nam’s economy, and foreign businesses want to be a part of it.

“Foreign companies coming here will be operating under Vietnamese law, so if we don’t help them, what are they going to do?” Thanh said.

“Big enterprises all rely on their lawyers, so the best way forward is to join forces with them.”


Thanh has a reputation as a strong-willed, charismatic adjudicator who is used to speaking her mind at the risk of paying a price.

She spent years in jail for her pro-Viet Cong views and activities in the 1960s under the fallen, U.S.-backed Saigon government.

“I wanted peace, but at the time, the Vietnamese government said those who wanted it were either Communists or pro-Communists,” said Thanh, who claims that she has never been a Communist but has been, instead, a “peace activist.”

Nevertheless, she has learned through experience to empathize with foreigners’ frustration over the many inadequacies and contradictions of the Vietnamese bureaucracy.


Today, she’s recognized as a leading proponent of reforming Vietnam’s legal system, with an eye to easing business interaction.

For instance, she advocates forming an arbitration commission that would operate according to international law.

Thanh also helped overhaul Vietnam’s constitution--adopted by the National Assembly in April--to guarantee wide-ranging economic freedoms practiced for the past five years.

“She’s one of the few people in Hanoi who really has exposure to the outside world,” said Fred Burke, a U.S. lawyer with Baker & McKenzie in Hong Kong who has known Thanh for two years. “Her foreign contacts allow her to be a bridge.”


At the same time, many observers say, her aggressive style may have rubbed Vietnam’s policy-makers the wrong way.

In elections in July, Thanh lost her Assembly seat.

Although the government denies it, observers say Thanh, who is not a Communist Party member, was assigned to run in a difficult constituency in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), where she apparently had no chance of winning. One of her toughest competitors was Vo Van Kiet, the free-market advocate who was reelected prime minister in September.

Many observers believe Thanh failed to be reelected because she overstepped her role as an articulate communicator who can easily interact with foreigners and translate their needs into laws.


“In some ways, I think she has too much energy for Hanoi to handle,” Burke said. “She’s sort of a loose cannon.”

Typically, after losing her seat in the election, Thanh was bold enough to give her interpretation of the results in an interview with the British Broadcasting Corp.

“My objection was that the election was rigged,” Thanh said. “I think that they’re afraid that I am too clever, and I pushed them too fast.”

Moreover, Thanh told many of her foreign contacts that she had to watch her step when talking about problems of corruption.


“I didn’t want to put up with a legal system that allows for corruption at any level,” she said.

“I knew I was going to fail in bringing this problem to the surface because I was going up against high-ranking officials, and changing the system scared them.”

Whatever the underlying reason behind Thanh’s election defeat, she concedes, “Now that I’m no longer sitting on the National Assembly, it is going to be more difficult to get laws passed.”

But Thanh is a woman who enjoys a challenge, and she had a ready remedy.


By August, she had become a vice president for the Fund for Assistance to Women’s Innovation (FAWI), a new socio-scientific women’s organization set up and supported by the Vietnam General Confederation of Labor.

Though controlled by the government, FAWI will allow Thanh to continue interacting with foreigners as well as the various ministries or government work units that are involved in drafting legislation before it is passed on to the National Assembly.

“This organization is going to work on a variety of projects, including a joint venture law firm,” Thanh said. “This is going to be a real challenge.”

But many suspect that the Vietnamese government will let her operate only within very well understood limits.


“Hopefully, she’ll be able to maintain some kind of relationship with the drafting committee even though she’s not a deputy anymore,” Burke said.

“I hope her role will continue to be to draft laws and regulations because there are so few people who know how to do that.”

Biography Name: Ngo Ba Thanh Title: International comparative law consultant and vice president of The Fund for Assistance to Women’s Innovation. Age: 61 Personal: Born in Saigon. Masters of comparative law from Columbia University and doctorates of law from the universities of Barcelona and Paris. Former chairwoman of the Legislative Committee of Vietnam’s National Assembly. She has two daughters and two sons; her husband is deceased. Quote: “Foreign companies coming here will be operating under Vietnamese law, so if we don’t help them, what are they going to do?”