Pain begets pain, says mental health group that councels victims – meanwhile, officials resist appeals to restrict the sale of acid.
The perpetrator wants to find social acceptance by making a mark and socially rejecting the other person
AT first glance, the mother and daughter curled on the bed in pink pyjamas could be taking a perfectly ordinary nap. It is not until they stir and turn around that it becomes clear this is anything but.
The bed in question is one of five in the female survivors’ room at the Phnom Penh headquarters of the Cambodian Acid Survivors Charity. Away from the judgemental eyes of society, this is where victims of acid attacks come to rehabilitate.
Cheav Chanda is one of those survivors. She was 34 when, in February 2008, four men threw acid on her while she was riding a motorcycle with her 2-year-old daughter and teenage son. The attack left her blind, disfigured and suicidal, and her children scarred for life. A month earlier, she had been warned by her ex-husband that his new wife was a jealous woman, and that she, Cheav Chanda, needed “to be careful”.
Activists say jealousy, revenge, domestic squabbles and business disputes are common motives for acid attacks in Southeast Asia – a form of violence that is as cheap as it is effective. Sok Phaneth, a counselling coordinator of the Transcultural Psychosocial Organisation, a community-based mental health programme, said the formula is simple: Pain begets pain. “The perpetrator has a lot of anger and wants society to know that this person inflicted a lot of pain,” Sok Phaneth said. “It’s a strong revenge. The perpetrator wants to find social acceptance by making a mark and socially rejecting the other person. People think beauty is very important, and if you destroy it, you destroy everything.”
It was jealousy that motivated Ear Kimly, 30, to attack her husband with acid four years ago. Soum Bunnarith, 38, had been spending every night with his friends rather than at home with his family, and she suspected him of having an affair. If the acid scarred his face, she thought, no other woman would love him.
On a December morning in 2005, Soum Bunnarith – regional sales supervisor for Coca-Cola – was leaving his house when his wife called his name. He turned toward her, and Ear Kimly doused him with a litre of acid. By the time he had run 40 metres to the river to wash it off, the acid had eaten through flesh and bone, leaving him permanently blinded and in need of several operations on his arms and legs. The couple, who have since reconciled, now live with their three children at the Cambodia Acid Survivors Charity, where Soum Bunnarith is taking music lessons in the hope that he will one day be able to earn enough money to support his family again.
Ear Kimly had bought the acid at a local market for just 3,500 riels (US$0.84). The weapons of choice in most attacks, sulphuric and nitric acid, are more commonly used for clearing blocked drains and in motorcycle and car batteries. As such, they are widely available – but repeated calls for their sale to be regulated have been rebuffed by the government.
Ziad Samman, spokesman for the Cambodian Acid Survivors Charity, is one of many voices calling for tighter controls. “One of the reasons that helps contribute to acid attacks is because it’s so readily accessible,” he said. “One of the things worth looking into is a regulation of acid, so it would make people selling acid more accountable.” But Khieu Sopheak, spokesman for the Ministry of Interior, said the authorities found it “too difficult” to control the use of acid in the Kingdom. “It is impossible to ask sellers to tell their customers to get a prescription to buy acid,” he said.
“What we must do is arrest the perpetrators.”
Bringing the people behind acid attacks to justice, however, can be just as problematic. In a high-profile case last month, the court of appeal overturned the acquittal of former Military Police brigadier general Chea Ratha and five accomplices for their involvement in an attack that left the aunt of her coerced lesbian lover scarred for life and an entire family living in fear. During the original trial, the court was given evidence including taped phone calls in which Chea Ratha threatened to kill her lover’s relatives, and acid that had been found at the home of one of her accomplices.
Chea Ratha had previously been implicated in similar attacks.
In overturning the acquittal, the Appeal Court sentenced each member of the group to between 15 and 18 years in prison and ordered them to jointly pay US$100,000 to the victim. However, they remain at large.
“The Chea Ratha case was an opportunity to set an example, and the government failed to bring justice to the victim and failed to set a precedent,” said Ou Virak, executive director of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights. “Unless we can punish high-ranking people, they don’t think twice about committing these crimes. People know that they can get away with these attacks. It’s a cruel and successful weapon.”
The people who attacked Thang Kham are among those who have escaped punishment. Now aged 60, she was in the wrong place at the wrong time in May 1990 and bore the brunt of an attack meant for someone else. Today, she is a resident teacher at the Cambodian Acid Survivors Charity. “I would like to request the government to kindly help stop the violence and punish the perpetrators,” she said. “This is unfair for the victims.”
In a report released on December 8, the Cambodian Acid Survivors Charity said it had recorded 189 acid attacks between 1985 and 2009. Of the 268 victims, 43 percent were women, 37 percent were men and 20 percent were children under the age of 16. Shortly after the report’s release, three more attacks were reported in Cambodia in the space of a week: two in Phnom Penh and one in Takeo province, leaving seven victims – all of them women. To date, three people have been charged with attempted murder. One of the cases is still being investigated.
Convictions, if they come, could provide a rare taste of justice for the people whose scars will serve as a daily reminder of the attacks for the rest of their lives. In the meantime, acid continues to be available without prescription for less than a dollar.