Almost two decades after pop singer Tat Marina came to symbolise the scourge of acid attacks in Cambodia, efforts to end the violence have seen major success
This article was published in the May edition of Southeast Asia Globe magazine. For full access, subscribe here.
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 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 gender-based 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.”