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Moral breakdown

Psychologists warn increasing violence among local youth indicates modern life in crisis

An image extracted from online video footage depicting a schoolgirl in Hai Phong City brutally attacked by her schoolmates

Nguyen Viet Cuong had no idea that yelling at one of his students would effectively sign his 8-year-old son's death warrant.

When he returned home late in the evening of November 11, the 34-year-old lecturer of the Quy Nhon University in Binh Dinh Province did not see his son Nguyen Viet Dung at home.

Soon after, he received an SMS from a strange number, saying "your son is with me, don't tell anyone or you will never meet him again."

Earlier, Cuong had asked Dang Van Cuu, 22, to pick up his son, studying in the third grade at Ngo May School in the province's Quy Nhon Town. Cuu was his student and a part-time employee at a hotel he owned in the town.

When Cuong called Cuu, the latter said he had not seen the child at school.

Cuong reported the matter to the police who quickly focused on Cuu as the prime suspect.

After being summoned for questioning, Cuu denied kidnapping Dung at first, before confessing to his horrific crime two days later (November 13).

Investigators said Cuu did not drive Dung home but to the Ghenh Rang Resort. He parked his motorbike at the foot of a mountain and led Dung through a mountain-side road into a forest.

Cuu took off Dung's shirt to cover his mouth and tied him up. Then he repeatedly hit the boy on the head with stones. After the boy died, Cuu covered Dung's face with leaves and went home.

Cuu told police he wanted to take revenge on Cuong for calling him stupid. In the recently concluded semester exams, he had performed badly and Cuong had threatened to make him fail the graduation exam, Cuu said.

Cuu had repeated a class for two years because of bad performance. He was given a warning that he would be expelled from university if he failed another year.

Cuu confessed to the police he also had a VND41 million (US$1,952) debt from football betting.

The police suspect he may have planned to kidnap the boy to blackmail his father at first, but later was incited to kill the hostage because of personal conflicts with the father.

Back in Cuu's hometown in Gia Lai Province's Iagrai District, his mother said he used to be "a good boy" but he became unusually quiet when visiting the family early this month, saying he failed yet another year at the university.

His father said Cuu was the youngest of their four children and the only one able to study at a university.

The horrific crime has shocked people and turned attention to the increasing acts of extreme violence seen nationwide.

Sociologists say there is no data yet to capture trends in this kind of violence but it appears to be increasing among the youth in particular.

They set the increasing violence in the context of widening inequality over the last few decades that has made it difficult for many people to make ends meet

A decade after Vietnam War ended in 1975, Vietnam adopted the "doi moi" or economic renovation policy that shifted from a central command economy to a market-oriented one. This triggered a period of high economic growth that saw the country's per capita income soar to about US$1,200.

However the pursuit of an export-oriented growth strategy and adoption of so called "free market" policies also saw the dismantling of a social welfare net and a system that was once focused on social equity.

Sociologists say people are now so burdened with worries over covering their cost of living and just a minor car accident or a bad glance can easily result in violence.

"A person living in Ho Chi Minh City has to suffer all kinds of pressure and it can easily result in violence. Rapid development makes people focus solely on making money rather than entertaining themselves," Nguyen Cong Vinh of the HCMC Psychology and Education Association told Thanh Nien Weekly.

Youth violence became a hot topic among netizens recently in Vietnam, where nearly 20 percent of the 86 million people are between 15 and 24 years old.

Last week, a 20-year-old man confessed to police in Yen Bai Province that he had posted the outrage-stirring status updates on Facebook about a fatal accident involving his friend.

Nguyen Van Linh, nicknamed Keo mut choi boi (roughly translated into Playboy Lollipop), wrote on his Facebook wall on November 2 that the 58-year-old man that they crashed their motorbike into had died at 5:07 p.m.

The person also called on friends on Facebook to buy lottery tickets, mentioning that the deceased was born in 1953. (In Vietnam, lottery addicts believe that tickets with numbers associated to deaths are more likely to win).

The person, meanwhile, replied that the incident did not matter much to him/her. "How unlucky we were," Keo mut choi boi wrote, "It doesn't matter that we had to pay for his treatment and his funeral fees, but what annoyed us is that we missed more important things to do."

Many Facebook users joined online groups to protest against Keo mut choi boi, whose Facebook account has since been deactivated.

Psychologist Nguyen Thi Tam, director of Vietnam Insight (Hon Viet) Applied Psychology Center in HCMC, said there is a "moral crisis" in the modern society.

"According to psychoanalysis, humans are primarily driven by sexual and aggressive instincts. In an environment where elements strongly stimulate the aggressive instinct, a person will display brutal behavior," she told Thanh Nien Weekly.

"Those elements are abundant nowadays through online games and movies," she said, calling for greater awareness of these factors.

The first nationwide baseline survey of youth undertaken in Vietnam in 2003 found a high proportion of males aged 14-17 were victims of family violence.

The study was conducted by the Ministry of Health (MoH), the General Statistics Office, the World Health Organization and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF).

"Nationally, 2.3 percent of respondents carried a weapon, and this group mainly comprised of young males at four percent compared to 0.5 percent of females," the survey found.

"A small group of urban young males may be at higher risk through their involvement in multiple risk factors including drinking, smoking, motorbike racing, carrying a weapon, and being involved in street violence and/or gangs," it said.

In a recent case, a tenth grader in the Mekong Delta province of Tien Giang stabbed another schoolgirl to death over some personal conflict.

The murder happened on November 12 at Nam Ky Khoi Nghia High School in Chau Thanh District when Tran Thi Cam Thu of class 10A7 killed Le Thi Thu Thao of class 10A3 with a knife.

They had quarreled during recess and Thao had slapped Thu in her face.

Witnesses said no one dared to stop Thu from stabbing Thao because she threatened to kill anyone who tried to intervene. Thu then washed the knife in the toilet and peeled an apple to eat before being arrested, they said.