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Acid attack gets graphic

Journalist Eric Pape  worked with a team of Stanford University students to create Shake Girl, a graphic novel about Tat Marina's fate. He spoke to the Post's Cat Barton.

Photo by:
David van der Veen

Eric Pape (left, with recorder) with former Khmer Rouge cadre Ieng Sary in late 1996 in Northwest Cambodia.

What drew you to Tat Marina's story?

I initially wrote an article about Tat Marina because, while what happened to her was so unimaginable on a personal level, it encapsulated so many of the horrors that women endure in Cambodia, as I had seen first-hand during my years as a reporter there.

I also knew from the start that the graphic nature of Marina's nightmare risked spurring people to turn away from a newspaper or a magazine article about it. But as a sophisticated comic book, violent scenes don't tend to turn people away. It is just drawings. That said, in the end, if readers know that a book like Shake Girl is inspired by real stories, they have learned about something that they might not have otherwise been willing to.

What does it say that acid attacks are often committed by women?

The violence that permeated the souls of so many people in Cambodia in the 1970s affected women, as well as men, obviously, and brought horrific acts of violence into the realm of something that people just do. Also, it is interesting that even Cambodian women of great privilege feel so vulnerable in relation to their husbands that they become convinced it is within their rights, capabilities, and the rules of their elite circles that they can maim or kill younger competitors for the hearts or loins of their men. If such

women are going to seek grim vengeance, why wouldn't they seek it from their own husband, rather than a girl or naive young woman who often doesn't really want to be in the relationship in the first place. The thought must run through the attacker's minds. But they can't. Their husbands are often their pathway to wealth, a sort of marital sugar daddy that they are entirely dependent upon for their societal status, their privilege and their prestige.

How hard was it to create Shake Girl?

Writing a book as an individual is a challenge, but a group collaboration like this brought up countless complex issues. And six weeks isn't very long for such an experiment. [But] I think that a respect for the story and the subject matter made for a very strong sense of purpose for all concerned. People worked to get it right, emotionally, for people like Tat Marina and Piseth Pilika, as well as for similar victims of violence in Cambodia, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, India and elsewhere.

Is Cambodian society going backwards? Why?

It is hard to say that things are going backwards in the sense that modern history in Cambodia has been so cruel to so many people. But we can say that the state of rights, respect for the law and political violence should be judged on the basis of the massive investment of time, energy and billions of dollars in resources that have been injected into reviving Cambodia. How is it possible that some of the nation's most prominent critics can continue to be gunned down or eliminated with impunity? And you don't have to oppose the government. This culture of impunity allows people to kill over money or maim young women for fear that they will eat into their position of "first" wives. The victims might be a poor country girl, a popular singer or the most popular actress in the nation.

Why is there no attempt to prosecute Khoun Sophal?

From a practical standpoint for Cambodia's leaders, the problem with setting a standard of justice is that it should - and ideally would - apply to all. How can justice go after the people who attacked Tat Marina in front of many eyewitnesses ... without going after the person who ordered the murder of actress Piseth Pilika, or the attacks on other singers who were the "second wives" of other prominent figures. Then there are the men in these affairs. Those married men - in some cases, the most prominent people in the country - know that the girls or young women that they are interested in cannot refuse them. They also know that their wives might deform or kill those girls.  The sad fact is that the Cambodian government has plenty of members who have been involved in gross human rights violations, and many others who have covered them up. On sensitive cases, police don't work for the people of Cambodia. Neither do the courts. They work for the rich and powerful.


What could donors or diplomats do about high-level impunity?

The "international community" has many tools at its disposal. It could refuse to interact with any of the people in the government that it knows were involved with grievous human rights violations of a personal or military nature. It could refuse to be involved with people involved in mass corruption. It could freeze bank accounts. There are countless tools. But at a minimum, the US government and European Union members could deny visas to people linked to such horrific attacks, particularly when survivors or their family members reside in Europe or the US. On a moral level, that would be a minimum.

What do you hope Shake Girl will achieve?

It is hard to imagine that a documentary or a book could bring real justice in Cambodia. If such projects help, that's great, but what it really does is remind people of such injustices - that the pain doesn't end and neither should the search for justice. All storytellers, journalists, writers and others can do is to try to keep the memory of such stories alive until there is justice.

Could the KR tribunal end the culture of impunity?

The tribunal may turn out to be better than nothing, but not by much. The torturous road towards getting the Khmer Rouge tribunal moving three decades late often seems more like a sign of ongoing impunity than of its end. The delaying games that the government has played with the UN over the last decade, the great effort it went through to make sure that no one can be indicted and convicted without local judges (who endure well-known local pressures), and the tiny number of people being prosecuted hardly seem like any great warning to current criminals and potential criminals who might contemplate engaging in horrific crimes, much less those who are planning to murder an individual or throw acid on a pretty young girl.

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