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Don’t let Cambodia turn into another Afghanistan

An acid attack victim from Siem Reap knits goods for sale Monday at the Cambodian Acid Survivors Charity in Phnom Penh, where she now lives and works.

Dear Editor,

These horrific attacks are attempts to exert control over their victims.

When the United States invaded Afghanistan, one of the stated reasons of the Bush administration was to liberate Afghan women from the cruel rule of the Taliban. Under Taliban rule, women were prevented from participating in nearly all forms of modern social life, including things as basic as mingling with men and going to school. Today, under the US-backed government, Afghan girls can go to school, but still face alarming forms of discrimination and attempts at social control. Numerous incidents have been reported of acid being poured on women, eating through their protective clothing and scarring them physically and emotionally for life. The victims of these attacks will probably never have a husband, family or employment, and will have a very limited set of friends, if any. These damaged girls will probably forever seek to stay away from the public sphere where they will be scorned, just as their attackers wanted. These brutal attacks are meant to terrorise girls to prevent them from taking part in modern social life, and the result of the attacks is a decreased female attendance at local schools. While not physically killing these girls, the acid attacks will have effectively killed them by preventing them from having a meaningful life in a modern society.

Like many expats that have come to call Cambodia home, I arrived nearly five years ago as a tourist and returned shortly thereafter to live and work in the country because I had fallen in love with the culture and people. On the whole, Cambodia’s culture has yielded a friendly and tolerant people always willing to flash a bright smile and lend a helping hand. It pains me to read in the media on a regular basis about the darker side of modern Cambodian culture, which yields people so cold-blooded that they can effectively rob young girls and women of their lives by pouring acid on the helpless victims, allowing their flesh to melt from their bodies and physically deforming them for life. Similar to the acid attacks in Afghanistan, these horrific attacks are attempts to exert control over their victims. While the attackers do not physically kill their victims in all instances, they effectively kill them by condemning them to a lifetime as a social outcast, just as the attackers wanted.

I refuse to believe that I am one of the only people in Cambodia so profoundly saddened and outraged by this modern social phenomenon, akin to the most primitive and barbaric means of social control employed by thugs in Afghanistan living their lives according to the codes of their medieval ancestors.

Cambodia has come so far since the horrors of the Khmer Rouge. Economically and socially, the country is blossoming. Youthful optimism is in the air. Cambodia’s culture is once again becoming known to the world. Can we not work to continually improve society and culture so that Cambodia truly becomes a progressive “Island of Peace” for her children, as envisioned in the Constitution?

To preserve Cambodian culture, the government has rightfully sought to protect victims of human trafficking by closing institutions that encourage this horrible practice. It seems to me that a few simple steps by the government and society could eliminate acid attacks from modern Cambodian culture: Control the sale, use and movement of acid; raise the criminal penalties against acid attackers and their co-conspirators to reflect the social death they inflict upon their victims; create a system of accountability against those who sell acid that is used for attacks; have prominent personalities speak out against this violence and encourage citizens to condemn this cruelty as being against the culture of the Kingdom. I believe these simple steps can go a long way towards banishing this primitive practice. While those with a mindset similar to the Tailban may not approve, I suspect most Cambodians would.

The fundamental question on this issue now is: Who will show leadership?

May the victims of acid attacks enjoy the Four Blessings of the Buddha: longevity, happiness, strength and beauty.

Ruwan Hulugalle
Phnom Penh

Send letters to: or PO Box 146, Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The Post reserves the right to edit letters to a shorter length.
The views expressed above are solely the author’s and do not reflect any positions taken by The Phnom Penh Post.



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