Crime and punishment in Vietnam: a reflection
*This post was orginally published on VnExpress International on February 24, 2016
2015 witnessed a surge in media coverage of single and serial homicide offences throughout Vietnam. Whether this is reflective of increasing crime rates and a less stable society needs to be answered by actual data rather than speculation.
Nevertheless, widespread anxiety can be felt among those who are fortunate enough to afford themselves the pleasure of reading local news everyday, be it print or online. In fact, that anxiety can be felt among those who produce the news themselves.
I was intrigued to come across an article written in Vietnamese by Linh Tran, published on VietnamNet, about how horrified she was to witness a trial proceeding in Binh Phuoc province being turned into a circus-like public performance. 300 police officers were reportedly on duty for the public proceeding, where 4000 civilians – some traveling from neighbouring provinces – were present to catch a glimpse of justice being served.
While it might seem intuitive for high-profile cases to gather public attention, local opportunists, who rented out stools and chairs for those who failed to secure proper seats and sold food and beverages for those who were in for the full entertainment experience, troubled her moral integrity. The anxiety graduated to a moment of moral panic after she engaged in a conversation with one of the observers and found out that they took the time to attend the trial mainly because they had anticipated a public execution to immediately follow the proceeding.
Terrified by the prospects of a public elated by extreme violence, she suggested there should be an end to the glorification of public trials and public executions, which would in turn desensitise the most heinous of crimes.
Moral panic tells us a lot about the society in which we live: that change is happening, however subtle or inconvenient. As people take an interest in crime, they start concerning themselves with punishment. And in so doing, they often conflate punishment with prevention – or, at least, seeing the former as anticipatory towards the latter. The prevailing sentiment, at least in the comment section underneath the abovementioned article, is that it pays to ‘make an example’ of the convicted criminals. In other words, it would help to boost morale if people can witness in public what is to be done to the bad seeds of society.
By extension, making a show of punishment not only gives satisfaction to a public angered by and anxious with perceived social instability; it teaches them that there is law in the land, and that those on the right side of the law can count on it not only to preserve justice, but also to prevent lawlessness in the future.
Do fear and shame really work? Again, the secrecy, let alone validity, of data surrounding the crime and execution rate in Vietnam means that the social scientists’ hands are tied. We can find in the vast body of academic literature evidence for and against using fear and shame as mechanisms of control all we want, but until we can prove with data collected consistently and reliably over time that exerting fear and evoking shame among the Vietnamese public fail to serve any preventive purposes with regards to criminal offences, the debate will be constructed exclusively around values.
Cultural values begin where reality fails. In the absence of facts, we fall back on the values handed to us to make sense of the moral dilemma with which we are confronted: do we cut the bad guys some slack, or do we butcher them for the evildoers that they are?
And therein lies the biggest philosophical problem facing Vietnam. Are convicted murderers inherently bad people, or are they people who do bad deeds? If you subscribe to the former notion, chances are you will favour stronger punitive measures. If you subscribe to the latter, chances are you will think twice about observing harsh punishments in the name of justice. And collectively, we the Vietnamese people are less than unanimous about how we should understand and treat the criminal class. On one hand, we have people who rejoice at the spectacle that is persecution. On the other hand, we have people who are repelled by the sight of violence, the suffering of another human being, and anyone who finds comfort therein. Whether Vietnam should be on the path of a punitive society or not seems to be the divisive issue of our time.
As far as social coherence goes, this poses a problem. How do we, as a society that yearns to be stable and just, find a common voice? The moralists among us will be quick to point out the ‘civilising process’ of punishment, as popularised by German sociologist Norbert Elias, throughout history, and argue thata reduction in physical violence is inevitable. Elias’ argument is elegant: as a society strengthens, people become more and more dependent on each other for their own welfare. Their conduct in turn become more restrained and disciplined, which allows them to live together in a peaceful manner. By this logic, violence is no longer necessary as a form of behaviour control, at least in public: public appetite for violence is at odds with the operation of a peaceful and disciplined society.
The culturalists among us might be quick to offer a counterargument, insisting that the vision, and reality, of a disciplined society might look quite different in the context of Vietnam. A society cannot be peaceful unless it is disciplined, as in the past participle, not the adjective. People cannot be counted on to do right by themselves – at least not yet. Just as Vietnamese parents on a micro level pride themselves in giving their children tough love and not too much affection while Vietnamese children pride themselves in respecting and obeying their parents, the state and the public seem to follow the same dynamic on a macro level. This consistency constitutes the Vietnamese culture, and helps define and maintain social order – so the argument goes.
But inconsistencies also exist. It would be a mistake to characterise Vietnamese society as a punitive one. Principles of mercy can be found throughout Vietnam’s rich history of governance; amnesty is a popular practice in Vietnam’s modern criminal justice system. More than 18,000 prisoners were released in August 2015, while 40,000 were amnestied from 2009 to 2013. While the coexistence of stigmatisation and reintegration in the same system might be puzzling, it lays bare the essentialism fallacy that cultural enthusiasts often commit. Here we have come full circle: in the absence of empirical data, our discussions inevitably fall back on contentious working definitions and misconceptions of culture.
And those might be all we have to work with for years to come. Data transparency and openness is the sensible solution through this muddle of “you-say, I-say” deadlock, but it will probably be a long time until proper infrastructure and professional qualifications are in place for efficient and reliable data collection and generation.
Until then, culture is at play. And culture does not always have to be a dogmatic battlefield of preservation against disruption of the ill defined and the fluid. The Vietnamese punishment culture defines itself: whether we choose to adopt a more humane, discrete, and less extravagant approach to criminal justice should not be framed around an appeal to Vietnamese essentialism.
We are sometimes tough on those who have wronged, but sometimes we also give them our mercy, in various forms. Singling out fragments of our complex social reality to back up unfounded beliefs is misleading and unproductive. As our collective opinion on punitivity continues to be divided, more nuance to the way we understand the relationship between ceremonial punishment and social stability is much needed.