VIETNAM: Infidelity and the New Scarlet Letter

KATIE TRINH WITES – Whether it’s religious influences, social norms, or human nature, society tends to view a “relationship” as exclusively between an individual man and an individual woman – or in today’s increasing acceptance of various sexualities, a man and a man, a woman and a woman, and so on. Monogamy is valued worldwide and Vietnam took it a step further, making it a legal matter, much like story of Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter but without the public humiliation and shame.

In 1999, the Vietnamese Penal Code outlined the consequences of adultery in Article 147. The code states that if adultery is committed, the accused can be subject to probation for one year or a prison sentence between three months and one year. Fast forward to 2015 and the Vietnamese Penal Code has updated Article 147 to increase the prison term for adultery to up to three years and sought to defined in a new law what “serious consequences” would be the result of infidelity.

Article 182 of the 2015 Penal Code is to take effect on July 1, 2016. The new law, however, does require certain conditions in order for the accused to be convicted. According to the law, the adulterer could possibly face jail time if the act results in divorce or the suicide of the husband, wife, or their children (the serious consequences).

Article 182 is subjective and difficult to fully comprehend. Huynh Puoc Heip, a lawyer and member of the Ho Chi Minh City Bar Association, claims that the infidelity provisions of the law make it “very difficult to determine which act falls into this category [in order] to punish those engaging in extramarital affairs.”

Another uncertainty that makes the law unclear is the intention of the suicide. Vietnamese lawyer, Trach, argues that most who commit suicide “tend to hide their true reason or sentimental life prior to taking their own lives,” and that “it is necessary to further inspect the validity of the evidence left behind to rule out any chances of false accusations.”

So, is Article 182 too extreme or not extreme enough? Trach makes a good point about how difficult it is to determine the objective of a person’s suicide. The circumstantial evidence of a spouse’s suicide could possibly send his or her former partner to three years of undeserving punishment if the suicide had nothing to do with their marriage or relationship. However, if the grief of a divorce becomes too much for a child and leads to his or her own death, three years may seem insufficient.

While Article 182 does a better job at defining the ambiguities from Article 147 from the 1999 Penal Code, it still does not serve as an adequate foundation for the conviction of an adulterer. Hester Prynne may not have had a fair trial, but it doesn’t look like she has a fighting chance in Vietnam’s court systems either.

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