Phnom Penh’s Meanchey district saw the first acid attack of 2016 on Monday night, with police currently hunting a husband accused of assaulting his wife with what is believed to be motorbike battery acid after a marital dispute.
According to victim Sum Sokny, 23, she and her husband Nget Phally, 27, had been in the process of getting a divorce. However, when Phally sought to end the proceedings, said district police chief Teng Sino, Sokny “did not agree, therefore an argument started, and he threw the acid and ran away”.
Speaking from hospital yesterday, Sokny said she and her husband had been arguing in the rented room they shared for about a month. Over that time, she said, Phally had become consumed with the notion that Sokny was having an affair.
“I told him if we cannot trust each other, then we should get a divorce,” she said. “He tried to cut my neck with a knife, but luckily our neighbours and my brothers helped me and I kicked him out of my room.”
In late January, Phally returned to affix his thumbprint to the divorce documents, but on Monday ran into Sokny shopping for food saying he’d had a change of heart.
“He asked me to compromise, and asked me to go up to my room with him, but I refused, because the owner of the house had warned us a few times about our fighting,” she said. “He got angry and splashed me with a pail of acid.”
However, even after Sokny called for help, bystanders were initially hesitant to come to her aid.
“Some people believed I was his mistress, so the people there did not help,” she said. “But after I explained, they started to help and give me water.”
Witness Seng Savorn said yesterday that he “could have detained [Phally], but I did not dare to because I was afraid that this was a family dispute”.
A 2014 scholarly study found that Cambodian society often views victims in a “negative manner, as if they must have done something wrong and deserved their fate”, although another witness, who asked not to be named, cited another reason for not intervening: “If we had arrested him, we would have killed him”.
Sorng Sophak, Sokny’s doctor at Calmette Hospital, said yesterday that her injuries were not life-threatening, though the acid “made [the skin on] her face and eyes contract”.
“It’s difficult for her to open her eyes and mouth because it was hit by the acid, but her eye ball is not in danger,” he said.
Acid attacks have stubbornly refused to die out, despite the stricter law on the use of acid.
The new law allowed for increased sentences for offenders, and its provisions concerning the licensing of acid manufacture and distribution were supposed to ensure acid did not end up in the hands of those who would use it to do harm.
According to data from the Cambodian Acid Survivors Charity (CASC), attacks peaked in 2010, with 19 reported, falling to 10 in 2011.
In 2012, the year the new law was passed, the number fell to seven, but has held relatively steady since, with three in 2013, and five in 2014. The Post reported on six such attacks last year.
Erin Bourgois, who spent two years as CASC’s project manager before her job was eliminated in a round of deep downsizing, said the organisation’s winding down was a direct result of the dip in cases, “which we partially attributed to the new law”.
However, she said, “the availability of acid shows more needs to be done for enforcement”.
What’s more, Bourgois added, while the 2012 law obliged multiple government ministries to provide support to acid attack survivors, “I have seen very little, if any, support services”.
Additional reporting by Jack Davies