Soc Trang Province Police Department officially addressed a video circulating on the internet showing its police officers brutally beating up two minors for violating traffic laws on September 29, 2022, and it was a rare government reaction in this type of case in Vietnam.
According to the police department, on September 25, several police officers saw a motorcyclist, who appeared to be under the legal driving age, driving with another young man on the back of his bike and approaching them from the opposite direction. The five traffic officers signalled for the two men to stop, but they did not. Instead, they increased their speed to escape from the policemen. When the officers finally stopped the young men, three of them could not control their anger and the altercation happened as recorded.
In covering the story, the state-owned media in Vietnam chose to report from a different angle and avoided the issue of police brutality entirely. Instead of focusing on whether the police were using excessive force on minors, they focused on the issue of whether recording and uploading the video of the police without their consent was legal or not. With this perspective, most state-owned media also reported from the police department's press release.
From the Soc Trang Police Department’s press release, it was clear that the police primarily focused on the violations that the two young men admitted to and glossed over the most important fact about the case: that the victims of police violence were minors. The age of the two young men was not revealed, but as they both admitted to being underage and students, it is reasonable to say that the officers brutally beat up these minors.
The policemen were caught on camera, and they faced some consequences. However, none of the punishments resulted in a suspension, criminal charges, or even any actions that would ensure that these officers would not repeat this behavior. Three of the officers were stripped of their honorary titles, the leading officer was demoted from vice-captain to officer for his superiors' behavior, and one other received a verbal warning for not stopping his colleagues. These official admonishments would be more than what people often expect in police brutality cases in Vietnam. Most of the time, the stories eventually would fall through the cracks and the police officers continued their work without punishment.
In the case of the Dong Tam land dispute in 2020, the police shot and killed a 84-year-old elder, Le Dinh Kinh, in his bedroom at the break of dawn. After that, the government sentenced two of Kinh’s children to death for their involvement in the dispute. Meanwhile, Lieutenant Dang Viet Quang, the man who shot the elder, was promoted. The official narrative was this: the Dong Tam protestors were branded as “terrorists,” making the police be the “heroes” for fighting them.
The message is clear. In Vietnam, the police are not held to the same moral and legal standards as average citizens, even when they are publicly caught in an undeniable excessive use of force. Saying that the officers had out-of-control anger was their department’s only answer to why they used excessive force, as if such behavior seemed acceptable to the authorities with just a slap on the wrist. If the incident were not caught on camera, or if the video were not uploaded to social media and gone viral, would the officers involved face any consequences at all?
Based on the police press release, the underlying argument here is that police brutality in Vietnam is an individual problem- the “bad apples” argument- and not a systemic issue. If this is one of the sporadic cases of police brutality in Vietnam, perhaps we may say that this is a problem of the individual behavior of these officers in Soc Trang.
However, as previously mentioned in the Vietnam Briefing, published by The Vietnamese Magazine, police brutality in Vietnam has a much more extensive history.
For example, the statistics published in 2015 by the Ministry of Public Security estimate that 226 suspects and detainees died under the supervision of the police from 2011-2014. The Ministry blamed this on the “worsening mental health conditions” of the suspects and detainees, which drove them to commit suicide. However, many people questioned if the reason for these deaths was only a mental health problem. What then would be the answer in other instances like the case where five police officers beat a detainee to death?
There seems to be a pattern here in which the police in Vietnam abuse their power and get away with it. Why do the Vietnamese police use excessive force? Is an authoritarian country more likely to have police brutality than its democratic counterparts?
Police brutality, however, is not unique to Vietnam or any other authoritarian regime.
The United States, in particular, has been intensely reflecting on this topic since 2020, when the #BlackLivesMatter movement was reignited with the murder of George Floyd- an unarmed black man who committed a minor offense- by the police. Many discussions in the U.S. focused on conversations about police brutality in different communities. The Council on Foreign Relations found that the number of killings by police in the U.S. is much larger than in other liberal democracies; even when police brutality happens, officers are not very likely to face major legal consequences.
In research about police use of deadly force in India, Professor Jyoti Belur of the University College London also found that in most cases, the police were “immune from official, legal or public scrutiny.” India, until recently, has always been categorized as a liberal democracy with a strong tradition of civil liberties and freedom of speech, so why is this a problem there? Among many other reasons, Belur attributed it to the police's confidence that the media would side with them.
This suggests that while police brutality is not a problem unique to Vietnam or other authoritarian regimes, the fact that Vietnam is an authoritarian regime with limited press freedom contributes to the reason why police officers are not held accountable for their actions.
Even though the U.S. undoubtedly has a police brutality problem, it is also undeniable that the victims and rights activists have many platforms to raise awareness about this issue and to counter the influence of the police, regardless of how powerful the authorities are. Meanwhile, when police in Vietnam physically assaulted minors, state-sanctioned media only focused on the police's press release and whether it was acceptable to record the incident and upload it on social media.
If police brutality still happens in a country where press freedom exists, like America, how much worse will it be in a country with no freedom of the press like Vietnam?
- Jyoti Belur. “Why Do the Police Use Deadly Force?: Explaining Police Encounters in Mumbai.” The British Journal of Criminology, vol. 50, no. 2, Mar. 2010, pp. 320–41. www.jstor.org/stable/43610761.
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