The highly publicised acid attack on karaoke star Tet Marina in 1999 sparked a raft of copycat crimes, sharply increasing the number of acid attacks in Cambodia the following year.
More than 10 years later, acid attacks continue to occur at an alarming rate, a study has found.
The United States report, released today by justice and human rights organisations, examined the frequency of acid violence in Cambodia, Bangladesh and India.
It found that the rate of acid violence was among the highest in the world because of entrenched gender inequality and discrimination, the availability of acid and impunity for acid attack perpetrators.
The report placed the blame at the feet of the government, finding that poor regulation and an ineffective justice system permitted an alarming number of acid attacks to continue to occur in the Kingdom.
The study recommended greater regulation of acid, particularly highly hazardous acids used in manufacturing, and a greater resolve by police and the courts to seek justice for victims of attacks.
While neither India nor Cambodia had laws to regulate the availability of acid or punish perpetrators, the recent introduction of acid laws in Bangladesh has decreased acid attacks in the country by up to 20 percent every year since 2002.
In Cambodia, acid violence is charged as the misdemeanour offence of “battery with injury”, carrying a punishment of 2-10 years imprisonment.
In Cambodia last year, there were 28 reported acid attacks, up from five attacks in 2008 and 15 in 2007.
The spike in acid attacks in 2010 prompted the government to draft a law specifically dealing with acid violence, but one year on it still hasn’t been passed by parliament.
Sital Kalantry, lead researcher in the study, said that the government had shown it was taking the problem seriously by drafting the law.
“We hope that the report leads to a renewed effort to enact legislation to appropriately punish perpetrators and regulate the easy availability of acid,” Sital Kalantry said.
Um Sam Ath, senior officer for Licadho, said acid attacks remained a major concern for people in Cambodia because there was no law explicitly covering acid attacks and there was poor enforcement of existing laws.
“Most of those people who have committed acid violence have not been arrested or haven’t received strong punishments,” Um Sam Ath said.
“To reduce the number of acid attacks happening in Cambodia, I ask the government to finalise the law on acid as soon as possible; to arrest acid attackers and strongly punish them as a good model for people in the future.”
He further called for greater restrictions on the availability of chemicals, saying companies should accept responsibility for their products.
Sital Kalantry agreed industry had a responsibility to ensure their products were not impacting negatively on the public.
“Industries can assist in developing and distributing products such as newer sealed car batteries that don’t require constant replacing of acid to ensure that acid is not misused.”
A litre of acid sells for less than US$1 and is readily available in Cambodia, as it is used in key industries such as rubber manufacturing and for household electricity generation in rural areas.
The study reported 40 percent of acid attacks in Cambodia are the result of “extramarital affairs or hate or jealousy”.
According to a previous study by Licadho, in nearly 30 percent of acid attacks from 1999 to 2002, a wife had attacked her husband’s suspected mistress or second wife.
Demographic data collected from the three countries found acid violence victims in Cambodia, Bangladesh and India were more likely to be female, under the age of 25 and know their attackers.
While the study found overall that women were more likely to be the victims, the gender divide was less apparent in Cambodia, where 52 percent of victims are female.
Ziad Samman, project manager at the Cambodian Acid Survivors Charity, said almost equal representation of female to male victims in Cambodia was because of the different motivations for acid violence.
“Family disputes and extramarital affairs are only a portion of them. There’s also acid violence from business disputes or even robberies,” Ziad Samman said.
According to the Cambodian Acid Survivors Charity, there were 271 acid attacks between 1985 and June 2010 in Cambodia, but the lack of official government figures and the social stigma for victims of acid burns indicates some attacks go unreported and the number is actually far higher.
Ziad Samman said that poor record keeping by hospitals and police, as well as the social stigma in being a victim of acid violence, meant the number of attacks recorded in Cambodia were likely only the tip of the iceberg.
“I suspect the numbers are closer to 100 [attacks] a year.” ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY REAKSMEY KONGKEA