Acid Attacks: A Cambodian Curse, Too
A pretty young karaoke singer is doused with acid as she slurps noodles with her young niece in a downtown market. A couple riding home from dinner are burned with dangerous,and unregulated,chemicals as they ride a motorcycle down a major Phnom Penh boulevard. A mother, sleeping with her two children, is attacked in her own home in an act of relationship-related revenge. These types of attacks are all too common in Cambodia.
When Westerners think of acid attacks we often think of them as belonging to the predominantly Muslim regions of the world and equate them with honor-killings and inter-tribal warfare. But these brutal attacks, usually involving unregulated and easily obtainable sulfuric and nitric acid, occur with disturbing frequency right here in Cambodia as well, and are currently on the rise.
Although progress has been made towards drafting laws that will provide stiffer punishment to assailants and regulate the sale of acid, Cambodian law remains a pretty weak weapon against this particularly brutal act of violence, handing down relatively minor and often apparently random sentences for such a horrible crime.
Some attacks do get punished, and some don’t, and often, the wealth and status of the perpetrator is a major factor in who gets away with it.
A cursory investigation into the practice reveals that revenge just doesn’t get much more brutal than an acid attack. The chemicals quite literally melt skin, tissue, and bone, leaving unfortunate victims grossly deformed for the remainder of their lives, if they are lucky enough to survive,and many do; when they go on to suffer from wholly inadequate care and scarce rehabilitation services in impoverished Cambodia.
According to a March 2011 report from the Cambodian Acid Attack Survivor’s Charity—a group that provides care for and maintains a register of acid victims—263 acid attacks have been documented in Cambodia since 1985, when records first began to be kept.
Four attacks have been carried out since the beginning of 2011, and three accidents have occurred involving dendric or sulfuric acid. 52% of the documented victims are female.
According to CASC’s most recent report, the attacks carried out since 1985 occurred most frequently in Kompong Cham province, with Phnom Penh carrying the dubious distinction of second place. And it bears remembering that these recorded incidents are only those that have been reported. The CASC notes in its annual report that “countless” incidents involving acid go unreported to authorities, especially those involving accidents and attempted suicides.
An acid attack occurred most recently on June 1st, 2011 when three men were doused in acid over a small-time dispute in the beach resort town of Sihanuokville, fortunately suffering relatively minor injuries. A more disturbing incident occurred on May 22, 2011 when a married couple were doused with acid on the major throughfare of Russian Boulevard—very close to where I live—while riding home from dinner on their motorbike.
According to the Phnom Penh Post’s story on the attack, the police believe a love triangle of some sort was behind the incident—unsurprisingly, as relationships gone wrong are frequently cited as the impetus for most acid attacks in Cambodia.
High profile acid attacks often follow a common plotline: a woman with power and influence takes revenge on a young woman her husband has taken up with, permanently mutilating the other woman, and gaining back some twisted version of of her honor in the process.
Such was the case in one of the decade’s most publicized attacks, when 19 year old karaoke singer Tat Marina was attacked in 1999 while she was having a bowl of noodles with her five year old niece. Onlookers at the scene recognized Khuon Sophal, the wife of then Council of Ministers Undersecretary of State Svay Sitha. Savy Sitha had pursued and eventually began “seeing” Marina when she was 15 years old threatened her with violence when she attempted to end the relationship.
Marina now resides in California, but her story has attracted no small amount of interest in recent years. . A 2009 documentary, “Finding Face,” chronicles her and her family’s attempts to seek justice. as well as a graphic novel. A collaborative graphic novel about her experience is also available. Despite her family’s best efforts, her powerful assailant has gone unpunished and still resides in Phnom Penh.
And attacks like the one that happened to Marina are still going on. Another horrifying mistress attack on a husband’s mistress documented in a 2003 Licadho report, saw a woman use her 13-year-old son to douse her husband’s mistress with acid, contained in a Sprite bottle.
But an increasing number of acid attacks don’t follow the wife-mistress trope. Spouses sometimes attack each other, often after a messy divorce or over allegations of infidelity, and husbands are, unsurprisingly, more likely to attack current or former wives.
However, an increasing numbers of acid attack victims are men. One woman attacked her husband with acid while he was sleeping, under the belief that he was having an affair with another woman, leaving him permanently blinded – though he has, apparently, since forgiven her.
Another man was doused by acid with a female dentist in January after they argued over a parking sign, according to Licadho’s disquieting list of of 2008 to 2010 acid attacks.
Often, bystanders or those sitting or sleeping nearby the intended victims are also injured or disfigured. A 2009 case described by CASC saw three people injured besides the intended victim – they had been sitting beside her on a bench.
High-profile figures also find even the possibility of an acid attack a frightening thought : Internationally recognized Mu Sochua, a Cambodian opposition leader, said in a 2009 speech at Berkeley: “I have no fear of jail, but I fear something else which I can’t tell you—not the bullets, but the acid attack. This is very common.”
The fact that such brutal and permanently disfiguring attacks are often carried out in an effort to shore up disputes or dilemmas that could be settled by less savage means is, to say the least, a disturbing commentary on Cambodian society.
Furthermore, cases against the perpetrators of acid attacks often fail to provide adequate justice to victims. A recent case involved 21-year-old Chory Theary and her two young children. The trio were doused with acid and injured as they slept by Oun Sreymab, who suspected Theary of being involved with her husband.
The court sentenced the attacker to a mere three years of probation because of her “ill health” and her intention only to “threaten” Ms Theary —an inadequate punishment for such a brutal crime.
According to Ziad Samman, CASC’s project manager, “This verdict highlights the necessity for the enactment of legislation that will regulate the sale and distribution of acid, but also implement strict and consistent punishment against perpetrators of acid violence.”
And there is now some hope that acid attacks like those committed against Chory Theary and her children will be taken seriously by the nation’s legal system.
An acid attack draft law was first proposed in 2009, and has been percolating through the Cambodian legal system ever since. Cambodia’s acid committee, formed within the Ministry of the Interior, is drafting the law, and recently said the draft will be submitted to the Council of Ministers sometime this year—a law that could potentially hand acid-attackers life sentences; Cambodia’s harshest possible punishment.
The new draft law will mandate five-year sentences for acid attacks that result in even minor injuries, and will also, for the first time ever, regulate the sale and possession of acid, according to CASC’s most recent report on the draft’s progress. (The law may very well change before it’s actually submitted for approval).
If the law passes, the government will also take new responsibility for victims: they’ll be provided with health care, legal assistance, and rehabilitation. It’s questionable if this will actually happen, but it’s a good idea.
Ultimately, regulation will probably be key to diminishing the number of Cambodia’s acid attacks – and accidents. “Legislation to regulate the sale of acid will be an important factor in reducing the number of accidental acid burns in Cambodia,” Mr Samman of the CASC says, calling attention to a less dramatic but equally dangerous issue.
In May 2011 alone the CASC had documented two cases of men accidentally drinking acid sold or kept in poorly labeled containers. These are deadly mistakes that could potentially be avoided with new regulations and, as the CASC suggests, a social campaign warning against the devastating effects of contact with acid.
A draft law regulating the sale of acid and mandating appropriately harsh punishment for perpetrators should go a long way towards cutting down on the number of attacks. Swiftly developing Cambodia needs to leave its past of brutal and unpunished violence behind if it hopes to become a major player in the Southeast Asia of the future, and taking control of acid violence is a major step in the right direction
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