Vietnam Briefing Jan. 16, 2023: Social Media Stirred Following the Alleged Rape of Two Female University Students at a Military School

The Vietnam Briefing, released every Monday morning Vietnam time, looks at Vietnam’s social and political developments of the past week.

Vietnam Briefing Jan. 16, 2023: Social Media Stirred Following the Alleged Rape of Two Female University Students at a Military School
The Center for National Defense and Security Training of Zone 7, where the alleged rape was believed to have happened (left); Human Rights Watch says in their 2023 report (right) that Vietnam has extended its crackdown to civil society sector. Photo: Bao Ngay Nay/ Human Rights Watch.

Vietnam’s social media stirred after two female students were allegedly raped at a military training school

What happened?

Vietnam’s social media was stirred up on the evening of Jan. 11 after a piece of unverified information circulating on Facebook claiming two female students from the Ho Chi Minh City University of Foreign Languages and Information Technology (HUFLIT) had been raped by male conscripts in their dorm room. These students attended military training classes at the Center for National Defense and Security Training of Zone 7 Military School in Ho Chi Minh City.

On Facebook, there were posts stating that these two students -  who were allegedly raped - attempted suicide by jumping off the balcony of their dormitory. One student reportedly died, while the other is said to have been seriously injured. The Vietnamese Magazine cannot verify this claim.

Further, this allegation yet gained widespread public attention following the publication of an anonymous comment on the Facebook page UEH Confessions, which is managed by students of the University of Economics Ho Chi Minh City. The comment, written by a student from HUFLIT, claimed that the deceased victim was a friend.  

The anonymous student also reported other alleged instances of sexual harassment, corruption, and coverups that occurred within the military center. The post gained more than 100,000 reactions, most expressing sadness and anger, before being deleted from the page the next day.

Apart from the anonymous comment, two videos allegedly recording the incident were published and widely disseminated on social media. The first video, recorded by a student outside the dormitory where the alleged rape happened, featured a male voice yelling, “spread your legs,” followed by a woman’s scream. The other video showed several soldiers carrying a body out of the military training school.

Why do Vietnamese students attend military education?

Military education is a mandatory subject in Vietnam’s high schools and universities. Vietnamese students at public universities must complete these training courses before graduation. The duration of the courses is not specified, but the training generally lasts from one week to a few months.

According to the Law on Defense and Security training, which took effect on January 1, 2014, the purpose of these military courses is to “educate citizens on defense and security knowledge” to “promote patriotism, the tradition of nation building and defense, national pride and self-respect.”

The military training is also said to “help raise awareness, responsibility and self-discipline regarding national defense and security tasks” and “protect the socialist Vietnamese Fatherland.”

What did HUFLIT representatives and the military training center say?

Around 9 p.m. on Jan. 11, Col. Bui Van Du, the director of the military training center, sent a letter to the board of directors of HUFLIT regarding the circulation of “untrue information” on social media. The letter said that the incident was, in fact, a quarrel between two female students in the dorm room. It did not directly answer whether or not any sexual assault happened there.

On the same day, HUFLIT announced that it had contacted the police “to verify information being spread widely on social networks.” The university confirmed that the military training center also asked the police to verify this information. HUFLIT did not provide further information, such as the current state of the two female students involved in this matter.

On Jan. 12, HUFLIT organized a press conference regarding the circulation of rape claims on social networks. Representatives from the military training center also attended the event. Livestreaming of the conference was ordered to discontinue halfway through the conference.

Col. Nguyen Tien Son, the political head of Zone 7 Military School, said at the press conference that the incident unfolded on the evening of Jan. 10 when a student discovered that she had lost 1.4 million dong. Other students in the dorm then accused a particular female student of stealing the money. The accused student then rushed outside the room without saying anything. Once outside, she began screaming and crying because she said she had not stolen the money.

Another female student living opposite the dorm came to testify at the meeting, recorded the incident with her camera phone and posted the video online without specifying precisely what had happened, VnExpress reported Son as saying.

The colonel claimed that most videos circulated on social networks were “edited and manipulated.” These “staged videos” had been re-published by “reactionary” social media accounts with the aim of “defying the State,” according to Son. The military representative, however, did not present the unedited clip to verify his claim.

A Facebook announcement published on Jan. 12 by the  HUFLIT Students Service Department said that the rape claim was “false” and that it could “greatly affect the awareness of students and the image and reputation of the university.” Students were encouraged not to share such “false information” and to avoid being “led by the public.”

That same day, Lt. Gen. Tran Hoai Trung, secretary of the Party Committee and political commissar of Military Zone 7, chaired a meeting with the Central Propaganda Department and the Military Security Protection Department. At the meeting, Trung ordered propaganda agencies to step up their operations on social networking sites to “guide public opinion” and “expose defamatory claims and the distortion of the truth made by reactionary, hostile forces.”

The lieutenant general also suggested relevant authorities use the Cybersecurity Law to prosecute social media accounts that disseminate such information.

As of this writing, on Jan. 13, there have been no updates or comments made by families of the alleged victims. State media journalists said the military representatives had not answered many of their questions.

On Jan. 14, the Criminal Investigation Agency of Military Zone 7 announced the decision to initiate criminal proceedings regarding the distribution of “false information” about the alleged rape of two HUFLIT students. According to Tuoi Tre Online, a State-owned daily newspaper, the authorities have identified the people who “directly edited, uploaded and distributed unverified clips on social networking platforms.” Tuoi Tre added that the military investigation agency would continue cooperating with relevant authorities to punish those responsible for the misconduct “in accordance with the law.”

Why is the Vietnamese public outraged?

Apart from the sexual harassment allegations, the Vietnamese public is outraged because of the lack of transparency in the investigation process carried out by the military training school. Meanwhile, HUFLIT was criticized for its lacking a thorough investigation of this incident and for not providing a transparent story to the public.

Several Vietnamese conscripts were previously reported to have died while receiving training at the People’s Army camps. Military officials at these bases claimed they committed suicide while on duty, although their families believed they were beaten to death by their fellow soldiers. However, the suspicious deaths of these soldiers have never been thoroughly investigated.

Human Rights Watch 2023 report: Vietnam extends crackdown to activist groups

  • According to the 2023 report of Human Rights Watch (HRW), a rights advocate headquartered in New York, Vietnam intensified its crackdown on both domestic and international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in 2022. The government persisted in suppressing freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly, movement, and freedom of religion. Fundamental civil and political rights are systematically restricted in Vietnam, according to HRW.
  • In its 721-page report World Report 2023, HRW reviews the human rights situations in nearly 100 countries. The rights advocate analyzes the situation in Vietnam based on several criteria, including freedom of expression, freedom of movement, freedom of religion, women’s rights, children’s rights, and sexual orientation and gender equality. Vietnam ranks poorly or improves slowly in almost every category measured. Political dissidents and human rights activists faced systematic harassment, intimidation, and even arbitrary arrest, while NGO leaders were imprisoned on politically motivated charges.
  • The Vietnamese government has introduced new legal requirements to restrict the operations of domestic and international NGOs based in the country. Another problematic decree requiring technology companies to open physical offices onshore and store user data in Vietnam came into effect last year. Many religious practitioners from independent Cao Dai, Hoa Hao, Christian, and Buddhist sects were subjected to surveillance, harassment, and intimidation by the government. Sexual harassment and violence committed against women and children remain pervasive in Vietnam.
  • Vietnam also turned a blind eye to Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, sugarcoating its failure to condemn the aggression as “neutrality.” In March 2022, Vietnamese security agents, possibly under government order, prevented eight democracy activists from attending a charity event in Hanoi organized to raise funds to support Ukraine.

UN Special Rapporteurs demand Vietnam provide explanations for the detention of 18 political activists

  • In a communication letter to the Vietnamese government, several UN Special Rapporteurs raised concerns and demanded Vietnam provide explanations for the arbitrary detention of 18 human rights defenders, activists, and journalists. The list included journalist Pham Doan Trang, land rights activists Can Thi Theu, Trinh Ba Tu, Trinh Ba Phuong, social media activist Bui Van Thuan, and former police captain Le Chi Thanh.
  • The communication, dated Nov. 2, 2022, remained confidential for 60 days before being made public, giving the Vietnamese government time to respond. It was later published on the UN Special Procedures communications database as Vietnam failed to reply to the letter within this time frame.
  • The letter was written by Mary Lawlor, special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders; Mumba Malila, vice chairman of the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention; Tlaleng Mofokeng, special rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health; and Alice Jill Edwards, special rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
  • In the published document, the UN human rights experts expressed “serious concern about the apparent systematic violations of the fundamental human rights” of the mentioned Vietnamese human rights defenders, journalists and activists as they only exercised “their right to freedom of expression and opinion.” These allegations, wrote the special rapporteurs, if confirmed, “constitute blatant violations” of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).
  • The communication letter also underscored the vaguely defined legal codes used to prosecute the free expression of opinion in Vietnam, such as “distributing anti-State propaganda” (Article 117 of the Penal Code) or “abusing democratic freedoms” (Article 331 of the Penal Code).
  • Furthermore, the UN Special Rapporteurs demanded the Vietnamese government provide detailed information on the factual and legal basis for the arrest, detention, charging and sentencing of the mentioned individuals, as information on any investigations conducted to verify claims of torture and inhuman treatment against them, as well as the information on their health status and the type of health care services provided to those requiring medical assistance, among other things.

U.S. Department of State initiates campaign to free political prisoners, including journalist Pham Doan Trang

  • The State Department on Jan. 11 initiated a political campaign called “#WithoutJustCause,” seeking to advocate for releasing unjustly incarcerated political prisoners worldwide who were imprisoned due to exercising their human rights. Vietnamese journalist Pham Doan Trang, who received a nine-year sentence for allegedly “distributing anti-State propaganda,” is among the 16 political prisoners in this campaign.
  • According to the State Department, #WithoutJustCause has been built on the U.S. government’s commitments at the Summit for Democracy, an initiative launched by the Biden-Harris Administration to “to make democracies more responsive and resilient, and to build a broader community of partners committed to global democratic renewal.”
  • The campaign advocates releasing these political prisoners “through public diplomacy, bilateral engagement, outreach in international organizations, and meetings with other governments, NGOs, and political prisoners’ families.”

How Vietnam’s Anti-Corruption Fight Keeps Expanding


“Authorities last year initiated criminal investigations of at least 4,646 individuals in about 2,474 cases for alleged corruption, abuse of power and economic wrongdoing. The Politburo and the party have disciplined around 70 officials, including five ministers and former ministers, since early 2021. Police have also detained a number of executives as part of investigations into alleged fraud tied to corporate bond issuance and equity trading and stock price manipulation.”

Vietnam Insight: Learn more about Vietnam

Vietnam’s Relations with the United States: Time For an Upgrade

Fulcrum/ Phan Xuan Dung/ Jan. 12

“The U.S. has long sought a strategic partnership with Vietnam. In the words of Kurt Campbell, Washington’s Indo-Pacific czar, Vietnam is a “critical swing state” in the Indo-Pacific, given its strategic location, growing geopolitical and geo-economic clout, and strong opposition to China’s maritime assertiveness. In 2010, then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton offered to raise U.S.-Vietnam relations to a strategic partnership. U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris suggested the same during her visit to Vietnam in August 2021. U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam Marc Knapper has emphasized that a priority during his tenure is to achieve the strategic partnership status.

A strategic partnership with the U.S. would align with Vietnam’s foreign policy of independence, self-reliance, multilateralization, and diversification. Vietnam has forged comprehensive strategic partnerships — the highest diplomatic designation — with China, India, Russia, and, most recently, South Korea. Many of Vietnam’s strategic partners are U.S. allies, such as Japan, Australia, and the United Kingdom.”

Former Foreign Minister’s Dismissal Complicates Vietnam’s External Relations

The Diplomat/ Hai Hong Nguyen/ Jan. 11

“The anti-graft furnace that has fired up under General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong’s watch and direction is now blazing intensely, releasing its heat outward to the entire society. The general public would no doubt be pleased to witness more and more government officials being fed into the flames. At the other end, many officials observing the furnace from outside would be either anxious for themselves or excited by the possibility of promotion to the offices vacated by their corrupt peers. However, it can’t be taken for granted that replacement officials will have the same, let alone better, capability as that of the dismissed ones. Unfortunately, this is the case for the foreign affairs sector, posing a serious challenge to the execution of Vietnam’s foreign relations without a timely adjustment.”

Explaining the Extreme Paranoia of the Communist Party of Vietnam

The Diplomat/ Bill Hayton/ Jan. 6

“If nothing else, this little episode gives us some good insights into what subjects and comments the CPV is most sensitive about. The biggest of these seems to be that members of the Politburo, those tasked with rooting out corruption, are themselves corrupt. It also appears that openly suggesting that the current leadership of the CPV is running out of ideas is taboo. The number of critical articles about Vietnamese politics published in English during 2022 was tiny, and mine would probably have languished in obscurity had it not been for the intervention and the censorship. There will be many people who will disagree with my argument, but it would be a small victory for academic freedom if the article, now shared on The Diplomat website, could get a wider circulation.”

Is Vietnam Torn Between Land and Sea in Its Defense?

The Diplomat/ Alexander L. Vuving/ Jan. 6

“Given Vietnam’s geography, a successful military strategy must treat land and sea as two mutually complementary, not mutually exclusive, realms. Indeed, Dai Viet, the predecessor of modern Vietnam, when based in the Tonkin delta, had to defend against simultaneous attacks from both land and sea by either northerners (Chinese and Mongols) or southerners (Chams). As the sea provided the easier access to the Viet capital, Dai Viet’s decisive battles against Chinese and Mongol invaders were mostly in the estuary of the Bach Dang River, but Dai Viet never neglected the land routes from the Chinese borders. When militarily conquering Champa, the territorial predecessor of today’s Central Vietnam, Dai Viet almost always advanced simultaneously on land and at sea, with the maritime wing being the more decisive.”

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