The Vi Yen supermarket in Gia Lai Province and the notice saying "I am a thief" that supermarket employees stuck to a bound 12-year-old girl after catching her with two stolen books.
The story of a secondary schoolgirl in Gia Lai Province’s Chu Se Town whom supermarket employees caught, bound and branded with a paper sign reading “I am a thief” has sparked nationwide frustration.
Most people condemned the punishment as “inhuman” and accused four supermarket employees of “degrading children.”
Images of the schoolgirl posted online have prompted a spate of reports by local media and thousands of social media comments. Most of the country sympathized with the schoolgirl and strictly condemned the behavior of the supermarket employees.
But that wasn't the first reaction.
According to the media, the student’s family and her teacher came to the supermarket to pay a fine and take her home. Her family apologized to the supermarket staff for her “thoughtless behavior.”
Following the outpouring of public outrage, the supermarket officials visited the student’s house to apologize and asked the school management to convey an apology to the students. They also issued a signed and sealed letter of apology to the school.
Although the incident is regretful, it was basically resolved by all of the parties involved.
A stealing society
I thought that the story had ended there -- with all parties acknowledging their faults and trying their best to minimize any psychological damage to the student.
However, the matter continues to be dragged into the court of public opinion.
Many people have displayed an excess of outrage toward the supermarket employees. They asked “How would you feel if your child was treated like that?” or “Are you saying you never stole something small?”
Even some high-ranking officials have jumped on this bandwagon.
Speaking to the media, Phan Thi Hang Nga, deputy director of the Gia Lai Department of Education and Training said: “The education department would like the school and the district education agency to demand that the involved supermarket officials and employees come to the school on Monday, to queue and apologize to the girl in front of the entire student body; and apologize to the school because [they] affected us all.”
I am not sure if Nga said this in a moment of frustration or because she didn't know what steps the supermarket staff had already taken.
Many poets, writers, journalists, bloggers and Facebookers have ascribed to the thinking that not only holds the girl blameless but valorous.
These people believe she should be praised because “stealing books is a victimless crime” or "my country is lucky" to have students who love books so much they steal them.
Some have even pledged to send the girl money for books.
It’s unclear how far these people understand the law, but it is obvious that condoning a theft, just because it is book theft, is a shameful excuse.
Thievery is thievery! Loving books and ignoring the law doesn't do anything good for anyone.
Many people now say the supermarket employees should be jailed, forgetting that the girl is also guilty.
Who should apologize?
Let’s consider the punishments ascribed by law.
According to a circular issued by the Ministry of Education and Training on rewards and punishments for basic education students, the girl should have been called before a disciplinary committee following her first violation, and in front of the entire school for repeated violations.
Had the student and her family reported the supermarket's actions to relevant authorities, the employees could have been subject to a fined of between VND1 million and VND3 million, according a government decree on administrative measures governing the protection, care and education of children.
The law holds both the student and the supermarket employees at fault. The student should apologize to her family, school and representatives from the supermarket for her crime. And the supermarket employees should apologize to the student, her family and other supermarket staffers for insulting a little girl.
The student’s family should apologize to the supermarket representatives for their daughter’s actions. And the supermarket representative should apologize to the student, her family and the school (which they already have).
Why then, has Nga of the provincial education department only asked the supermarket staff to apologize to the school’s teachers and students?
The supermarket’s managers and uninvolved employees now have the right to sue Nga and ask her to apologize to them for her comments. Nga should also apologize to the public on the behalf of Gia Lai education authorities for the "product of their education."
Above all, the story snowballed into a scandal that's frustrated the public thanks to the media. Many newspapers should not have published an image of the student carrying the board. They too should apologize to the student, her family and their readers.
Last month, numerous media reports came out about Vietnamese thieves traveling abroad, particularly to Japan. One paper reported that up to 40 percent of thieves arrested in Japan, in 2013, were Vietnamese.
Very recently, a Vietnam Airlines stewardess was arrested by Japanese police on suspicion of transporting stolen goods. On April 15, local media quoted Nippon TV as saying that Japanese police arrested two Vietnamese suspected of stealing cosmetics at a shop in Kagawa.
In Vietnam, thievery can be discovered in many aspects of life, from the “stealing” of office hours at government offices to cheating in business and siphoning off construction materials from public projects.
These issues have not only been talked about in the public but also discussed at the parliamentary level, which proves that thievery has become a national problem that threatens Vietnam's development and core social values.
Worse still, Vietnamese people constantly make excuses for thieves, pointing to their low salaries, an unjust society or the particular difficulty of their lives.
Do Vietnamese people who have a habit of stealing sympathize with thieves? Is thievery now considered normal by adults because they spent their childhoods stealing apples or guavas from a neighbor’s garden?
Have ignorant and uncultured Vietnamese people accepted book thievery as an act of cultural enrichment? Are the majority of Vietnamese people so heartless and inhuman that they cry crocodile tears to show off their compassion and humanity?
Is it true that we have come to consider bribery an appropriate means of dismissing an administrative fine? Like when we bribe the traffic police so we can continue to turn without signaling?
Are we proud to go abroad and find signs warning shop owners that Vietnamese people are likely thieves? And are we eager to tell our foreign friends that they are likely candidates for rampant pickpockets and bag snatchers?
We should be strict and neither accept nor protect thieves--children or not. The acceptance of stealing remains a serious threat to the nation's future.
* The writer is a university lecturer and blogger who lives and works in Ho Chi Minh City. The opinions expressed are his own.
**Editor's note. Since the writing of this editorial, all four of the supermarket employees have been arrested for the actions described in this story.
Like us on Facebook and scroll down to share your comment