Cam­bo­dia's acid at­tack epi­demic that spiked fol­low­ing an at­tack against a teenaged singer


Southeast Asia Globe - - Contents - By Euan Black

Fol­low­ing a high-pro­file acid at­tack on a pop star­let in 1999, Cam­bo­dia saw a record num­ber of sim­i­lar in­ci­dents. The Cam­bo­dian Acid Sur­vivors Char­ity was formed in re­sponse, and a law was passed to bring in longer sen­tences and tougher re­stric­tions on the sale of acid. But while in­ci­dences of acid vi­o­lence dropped dra­mat­i­cally af­ter the law was in­tro­duced, the gen­der bi­ases at the heart of the is­sue re­main un­re­solved

ON 5 De­cem­ber 1999, while eat­ing lunch with her niece at a stall in Ph­nom Penh’s Olympic Mar­ket, 15-year-old video karaoke star Tat Ma­rina was wrenched from her chair, beaten un­con­scious and doused in five litres of ni­tric acid. The liq­uid ate away at her face and body, erod­ing her promis­ing ca­reer. Ma­rina woke to find her­self in a “liv­ing hell” that she says con­tin­ues to haunt her to­day.

“It’s a night­mare,” she told South­east Asia Globe dur­ing a tele­phone in­ter­view from her home in Mas­sachusetts, US, where she moved the year af­ter the at­tack be­fore be­ing granted po­lit­i­cal asy­lum in the coun­try. “When­ever I go for a walk, peo­ple pause to stare at me. Some­times peo­ple, es­pe­cially kids, get re­ally scared – it’s hor­ri­ble.”

Eye­wit­nesses were quick to iden­tify one of Ma­rina’s at­tack­ers as Khoun Sophal, the wife of Svay Sitha, then an un­der­sec­re­tary of state who had re­port­edly wooed the teenaged singer into hav­ing an af­fair af­ter in­tro­duc­ing him­self as an un­mar­ried Cam­bo­dian-Amer­i­can busi­ness­man.

But, as so of­ten hap­pens in Cam­bo­dia, the rule of law bent to the will of the rich and pow­er­ful. Sophal went un­pun­ished and Sitha was later pro­moted to sec­re­tary of state at the Coun­cil of Min­is­ters, a po­si­tion he holds to this day.

“I don’t know how this thing works in Cam­bo­dia. In the US, the per­pe­tra­tors would be in jail,” said Ma­rina.

Ma­rina’s story not only cap­tured the Cam­bo­dian pub­lic’s at­ten­tion, it in­spired nu­mer­ous jilted wives and mis­tresses to hand out their own vig­i­lante ver­sion of jus­tice. In the six months af­ter the at­tack on Ma­rina, the Cam­bo­dian League for the Pro­mo­tion and De­fence of Hu­man Rights (Li­cadho) re­ported 14 copy­cat in­ci­dents.

The at­tacks con­tin­ued through­out the fol­low­ing decade. In re­sponse, the Cam­bo­dian Acid Sur­vivors Char­ity (CASC) was es­tab­lished in 2006 to help pro­vide sup­port to vic­tims and to ad­vo­cate for stronger pun­ish­ments for per­pe­tra­tors and re­stric­tions on the sale of acid.

The char­ity’s re­lent­less lob­by­ing was in­stru­men­tal in con­vinc­ing the gov­ern­ment to pass the Law on Reg­u­lat­ing Con­cen­trate Acid in 2012 and its re­lated sub-de­cree in 2013, which al­lowed for in­creased sen­tences for of­fend­ers and in­cluded pro­vi­sions de­signed to limit the sale and distri­bu­tion of dan­ger­ous acids.

“Such leg­is­la­tion caused the num­ber of [re­ported] at­tacks to drop from 36 sur­vivors in 2010 to six in 2014,” said Erin Bour­gois, a for­mer project man­ager at CASC. The char­ity be­gan wind­ing down its op­er­a­tions in 2015 fol­low­ing a sharp de­crease in the num­ber of acid at­tacks. Since then, three cases were re­ported in 2016 and three in the first four months of 2017.

“How­ever, the Cam­bo­dian gov­ern­ment still needs to do a lot of work to ful­fil its end of the bar­gain,” Bour­gois said. “Un­der the 2012 acid law, it is ob­li­gated to pro­vide free med­i­cal and so­cial ser­vices to vic­tims and must also en­sure that acid does not get into the wrong hands.”

Al­though the num­ber of at­tacks have dropped dra­mat­i­cally since the in­tro­duc­tion of the law, the gov­ern­ment has failed to pro­vide that med­i­cal and so­cial sup­port to vic­tims, ac­cord­ing to Chenda Sophea Chhun, the char­ity’s for­mer pub­lic re­la­tions man­ager.

“Some of the vic­tims we helped be­fore formed their own team. Some of them sing in the streets for money. But most of them were too se­verely af­fected to work, so they moved back to their

Fe­male vic­tims are of­ten un­justly per­ceived and stig­ma­tised be­cause of this be­lief that it was due to an ex­tra­mar­i­tal af­fair or in­fi­delity”

home­town and are sup­ported by their fam­ily,” she said. “There’s no plan from the gov­ern­ment.”

Em Chan Makara, the spokesper­son for the Min­istry of So­cial Af­fairs, ad­mit­ted as much to the Ph­nom Penh Post ear­lier this year. “So far, we have never en­gaged with or done any­thing to help any acid vic­tim,” he said.

Fur­ther­more, misog­y­nis­tic at­ti­tudes that at­tempt to lay the blame at the feet of the vic­tims, and other trou­ble­some stig­mas, have proven re­sis­tant to change.

Of the at­tacks monitored by CASC, 21% were ac­ci­dents and 18% harmed an un­in­tended tar­get. Only 14% were found to be mo­ti­vated by “per­ceived in­fi­delity”, but Cam­bo­dia’s me­dia has all too of­ten framed such at­tacks as lovers’ quar­rels.

As a re­sult, Bour­gois said, “fe­male vic­tims are of­ten un­justly per­ceived and stig­ma­tised be­cause of this be­lief that it was due to an ex­tra­mar­i­tal af­fair or in­fi­delity” and are of­ten par­tially blamed for the at­tack – as re­ac­tions to re­cent in­ci­dents demon­strate.

Af­ter her 23-year-old daugh­ter had acid thrown in her face two months ago, So Da told the Ph­nom Penh Post that she im­me­di­ately asked her child if she was in­volved in a love tri­an­gle. A year ear­lier, a wit­ness to an­other at­tack told the same news­pa­per that he could have de­tained the per­pe­tra­tor, but he “did not dare to, be­cause I was afraid that this was a fam­ily dis­pute”.

That fe­male vic­tims are of­ten stig­ma­tised in this way re­sults in fewer women re­port­ing such crimes to po­lice – a wor­ry­ing trend that is al­ready a ma­jor is­sue in Cam­bo­dia, ac­cord­ing to Kate See­wald, a cam­paign ad­vi­sor spe­cial­is­ing in women’s rights at Ac­tionAid Cam­bo­dia.

“The low level of re­port­ing by sur­vivors of all forms of gen­der­based vi­o­lence, in­clud­ing acid at­tacks, is a re­flec­tion of both a lack of faith in a le­gal sys­tem that of­ten fails to pro­vide jus­tice for women and of the lev­els of so­ci­etal blame that are so of­ten ap­por­tioned to women for the vi­o­lence that is car­ried out against them,” she said.

In or­der to bring an end to acid at­tacks, See­wald added, Cam­bo­dia must move be­yond the view that gen­der-based vi­o­lence is an “in­evitable re­al­ity of life that women should try their best to avoid by mod­er­at­ing their own be­hav­iour” to one that frames it as an “in­tol­er­a­ble hu­man rights vi­o­la­tion with the blame fixed squarely on the per­pe­tra­tor”.

The way Ma­rina sees it, Cam­bo­dian cul­ture has al­ways taught that “the hus­band is more im­por­tant than the woman”, but she is op­ti­mistic that the coun­try could break free from the chains of pa­tri­archy in the not-too-dis­tant fu­ture.

“That [idea’s] quite old now, and every gen­er­a­tion changes things. I be­lieve that Cam­bo­dia could change; the way men treat women could change,” she said.

Ma­rina is de­ter­mined to es­cape the lim­its her at­tack­ers wished to im­pose upon her. She in­tends to go back to school to pur­sue a ca­reer as a med­i­cal as­sis­tant so that she could one day “re­turn to Cam­bo­dia and help the poor fam­i­lies get back up”.

“I had a lot more op­por­tu­ni­ties [be­fore the at­tack] than I do now, but some­times I ap­pre­ci­ate what I’ve been through and what I’ve learnt from it,” she said. “It’s helped me be­come who I am to­day.”

Pre­vi­ous page: a child acid at­tack sur­vivor at the for­mer CASC cen­tre in Ph­nom Penh in March 2009

This page: a map of acid at­tacks car­ried out in Cam­bo­dia up to Jan­uary 2013 (top); a Cam­bo­dian ven­dor un­loads a bot­tle of sul­fu­ric acid from a box at her shop near the Thai bor­der in Fe­bru­ary 2010

Acid at­tack sur­vivors gather in front of the

CASC cen­tre in Ph­nom Penh in 2009.

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