War hero who turned on the Communist party

Bui Tin in Saigon in 1973 overseeing the departure of the last American troops.

Perhaps only Ho Chi Minh himself could have delivered a more telling indictment of the Communist party.

Colonel, Bui Tin, who has died in Parisian exile at the age of 90, was the ubiquitous hero of Vietnam’s wars of independence and conquest.

His revered status meant that his defection in 1990, and his condemnation of the “egoism, corruption and fraud” of the party, dealt a stinging blow to the prestige and legitimacy of the leadership.

Bui Tin kept up his campaign for democracy in Vietnam until his last few days – his death at the weekend confirmed by friends and family but unmarked by Vietnam’s state controlled press.

After signing up to fight for Ho Chi Minh and the revolutionary cause at the age of 19, Bui Tin had a Forest Gump like ability to show up at many of the decisive historical junctures that followed.

He was injured at Dien Bien Phu in ’54, helped map out the Ho Chi Minh Trail in the early 60s and was in Saigon as part of a liaison mission to oversee the withdrawal of the last US troops in 1973.

Most remarkably of all, he entered the presidential palace on a tank two years later and personally took the attempted surrender of the interim South Vietnamese leader, Duong Van Minh.

Too late, he informed him, the south was already occupied and the fight was over.

Bui Tin had earlier moved from active combat to journalism, but his rank of colonel meant that he was still the most senior North Vietnamese officer present at that historic encounter.

His instinct for action later saw him enter Phnom Penh with the first Vietnamese troops as the Khmer Rouge were driven out of the cities and back to their jungle refuges.

After the war, he took top editorial positions at leading Communist party newspapers, but became frustrated at the rejection of many of the liberal policies that he advocated.

He tried to make a stand against the forced collectivisation of agriculture and the corralling of hundreds of thousands of former South Vietnamese soldiers into prison camps for “re-education”.

In 1990, Bui Tin took advantage of an invitation from the French communist newspaper, L’Humanite, and sought asylum in Paris.

From there he released his manifesto for the democratisation of the country and fired off, via short-wave radio, excoriating attacks on the Communist party leadership.

He condemned a system of “privileges and prerogatives”, saying that the Communist party had succeeded where the American military failed in crushing Vietnam.

It was an appalling betrayal of all the millions who had fought and died for their country against the French and the Americans, he concluded.

The newsrooms where Bui Tin once practiced his craft remain silent about his legacy, but in the minds of many journalists and their political masters, the life lessons of such an extraordinary man must still feel like a stinging rebuke.