On the night of January 11, 2023, social media platforms in Vietnam were hit by shocking news. An online video clip alleged that two female students of the Ho Chi Minh City University of Foreign Languages and Information Technology (HUFLIT) had been raped while staying at the Center for National Defense and Security Training of the Military School Military Region 7 for their military classes.
In Vietnam, university students must take military classes as part of their curriculum. A post on the Facebook group called HUFLIT Confessions - where the HUFLIT students posted their personal stories - detailed the sexual assaults. It further claimed that one of the students in the video jumped off a balcony in an attempt to commit suicide. There were over 200,000 reactions to that post before it got deleted.
When the public reacted angrily to the incidents, a document allegedly from Military School Military Region 7 surfaced. It accused the online video of being fake and argued that it was just an altercation between two female students. The document also alleged that "someone" had altered the video clip to create a scandal and that HUFLIT reported this incident to the authorities. In short, the Military School Military Region 7 and HUFLIT explained this incident as fake news without naming any suspect.
After learning about the university's explanation, the public became even more agitated instead of calming down. The answers from both schools failed to address the people's two significant concerns: transparency of the incident and the current safety of students in that situation.
More than that, the public - especially young people and current university students - became even more bewildered because of the insufficient responses. On Twitter, many accounts began to tweet about the incident with the hashtag #HUFLIT, trying to disseminate information about this case. The people and the students just needed to know how the government would handle the investigation when one of the military schools in Vietnam was involved. They had straightforward questions and expected the authorities to give them honest answers.
The question would be, would the military police and courts investigate and provide the facts to the people? Or would the regular police be involved like in any other cases? Nevertheless, these scenarios did not happen because the Military School Military Region 7 issued a document immediately on January 11 night, stating that the story was "fake."
Furthermore, the HUFLIT Confessions Facebook group announced that it would shut down indefinitely, prompting people to think that HUFLIT forced the group to close. The public, however, remained unrested. Many prominent bloggers, attorneys, and public figures posted on their social media. The majority of the posting centers around the issue of transparency. Many people demanded that the government provides a thorough investigation and bring the case to light whether the incident did happen or not.
On the next day, January 12, 2023, it seemed that the authorities noticed that this incident received much public attention and chose to respond. The university and the Military School Military Region 7 held a joint press conference to provide the public with their official responses. People all looked forward to it, but it was another disappointment.
The press conference was live-streamed, but the live-streaming got turned off at the end when people anticipated that the school officials would provide sufficient responses. There were posts from social media that the reporters could not ask their questions on the investigation of this case at the conference.
The people remained unaware of the facts, and there were only a few discussions about the status of the students. No one knew about the mental condition of the two students allegedly raped that night or whether they were alright. The official response remains the same: the information that spreads online is fake news. But they could not name an actual suspect.
It seemed that the Military School Military Region 7 and HUFLIT - the university - would want to close this case quickly when they kept their answer that the allegation was fake news. However, the public continued to demand that a proper investigation be conducted, and all details are disclosed. It means the people did not believe anyone could create this misinformation and spread it widely online.
As the public demanded more information, the university and some military officials announced that "reactionary forces" were the main culprits in creating and spreading this story. They alleged that this culprit made the video clip to defame the government and the military. They also threatened to use the Cybersecurity Law to find the "culprits" and prosecute them.
Trying to pin this on the vaguely defined "reactionary forces" is not working in this case. Immediately, social media responded with questions such as, why would "reactionary forces" commit such an act? In Vietnam, it is common knowledge that the "reactionary force" monster regularly stars in these mysteries to stand against the government. It was probably because "reactionary forces" were the most manageable figure to pin all the blame on. Be it a political, justice, or social issue, "reactionary forces" will be liable in all cases. Would it work in the case at hand? It may not.
A thorough investigation to provide transparent responses to the people - especially the young university students - should be the solution for the government to gain back the citizens' trust and protect its legitimacy. Many people are already afraid that this story will fall through the cracks in the next few days and that the authorities will not provide any official reasons. The Vietnamese government can cover up the story quickly right now, but the price it will pay in the future may be harsh.
In any society, the citizens must always know the truth and the whole story of any societal tragedy. People also want to see how the authorities propose changes to prevent another such offense from happening again. Rashly covering up the incident and using vague "reactionary forces" as an excuse is an ancient script that Vietnam must revise if the Communist Party wants to continue its rule.