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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Whether a beer girl or celebrity, the dangers of the job are never far

Whether a beer girl or celebrity, the dangers of the job are never far

With a history of shootings, acid attacks and near abductions, life for

women who are the focus of men's attention can be hazardous, but

questions remain as to who is to blame.

Photo by:

Sovann Philong

Actress Dy Savat, in her Phnom Penh home last week, says personal behaviour is sometimes blamed for scandals that turn violent.

The unfortunate case of Piseth Pilika

The most famous example of the dangers of fame came in July 1999, when actress and classical dancer Piseth Pilika was shot in the back at point-blank range near the Russian Market in a killing that the French magazine L'Express claimed could be linked to Prime Minster Hun Sen's wife Bun Rany. The magazine argued that Bun Rany ordered the killing because of an alleged affair between the actress and prime minister. The government denied the charge, dismissing it as a baseless opposition ploy, but relatives of the slain actress living in asylum in France continued to claim years after the killing that the incident was linked to the alleged affair. However, no one was arrested for the crime, nor has there been any evidence deemed credible by the courts to support any of the allegations published by the magazine. For her part, actress Saray Sakana, 19, said, "I am not afraid or scared of getting involved in this type of scandal myself because I don't do anything wrong". She continued: "But I just feel regret and pity for artists who face this problem and who have been attacked or shot. I think they didn't want to make trouble, but sometimes they couldn't avoid it. The circumstances forced them to do so." 

BEING an entertainer in Cambodia is a high-risk proposition for women, particularly those who attract the attention - and advances - of rich and powerful men. The entertainment industry is rife with tales of women who, after allegedly engaging in adulterous affairs with high-profile men, were targeted by vengeful wives in plots involving acid attacks and assassination attempts.

While in the past decade several high-profile victims - Touch Sunnich and Tat Morina, for example - have sporadically dominated headlines, these cases point to a near-constant threat that affects all entertainers, from the most public celebrities to the most anonymous beer girls.

Seng Nora, 21, who works as a beer girl for Angkor Beer in a Kampong Cham province night club, said she and her colleagues are often targeted by wealthy, married men looking to have affairs, which can lead to revenge attacks, either from wives or the men themselves. She recalled turning down an aggressive pursuer just last week.

"Last week there was a guy with a gun who tried to force me to go have sex with him, but I rejected him," she said.

"Then he threatened me and said he wanted to shoot me. I told him that I'm not a prostitute - I sell beer, not my body - and that he should go to another place. Then he ordered his friends to take a gun and shoot me."

In other instances, she said, beer girls are unable to refuse inappropriate advances from married men, leaving them vulnerable to revenge plots like those hatched against celebrity performers.

In 2003, Touch Sunnich sustained gunshots to the face and neck shortly after leaving a Phnom Penh flower shop with her mother, who died in the attack. Tat Marina was the target of an acid attack in 1999 that severely disfigured her face, neck, back, chest and wrists.

Both incidents were widely viewed as attempts at retribution for illicit affairs with married men.

Blame game

Though most government officials and entertainers say such incidents are regrettable, recent interviews point to a debate about what is to blame for them: Is it the lax morals of the performers themselves, or a culture in which women have no choice but to consent to the rich and powerful? All too often, the standard government response is to blame the former, but many rights groups and entertainers contend that the victims in these cases had little chance to resist the advances of those who pursued them. Moreover, they blame hapless law enforcement officials - and confusion about which ministries should be involved in such cases - for failing to bring the assailants to justice.

...I told him that I'm not a prostitute - I sell beer, not my body.

"This is a difficult problem to solve because it often stems from the action of an individual girl," said Thai Naraksatya, a secretary of state at the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts. "I think Khmer actresses become victims in these scandals because of their own behavior."
Chea Vannath, an independent social analyst, also blamed the performers, arguing that those who "live with good morals and respect" manage to avoid such trouble. She said young entertainers who are "overjoyed with materialism" fuel the problem.

Even some entertainers say the scandals stem from the personal behavior of the women involved. Dy Saveth, a 64-year-old movie star, said: "When someone is involved in such a scandal, I think it is usually the result of their own individual problems and private matters".

But Sy Define, a secretary of state at the Ministry of Women's Affairs, said the girls' "bad decisions" do not justify violent acts committed against them.

"Even though female stars or other women have relationships with married men or someone's boyfriend, they should not be forced to flee [or be] killed," she said.

Others argue that the fault lies with the men who initiate the affairs, saying female performers are often not in a position to refuse.

Theary Seng, president of the Center for Social Development, said many female performers lack power, money and influence, and are often trading solely on their beauty in such situations.

This leaves them feeling comparatively weak in exchanges with men, which can limit their freedom of choice.

Sy Define herself said that in some cases women who tried to refuse found themselves the targets of abduction attempts or outright attacks.

Photo by:
Tracey Shelton

Ieng Sithol, president of the Khmer Arts Association, shown here in a file photo.

Sy Define pointed to government efforts to tackle the problem, including educating women as to "how to behave in a dignified manner"; observing Good Family Day, an event in Phnom Penh that was first held last year; and pushing to pass laws against domestic violence and


Possible solutions?

Chea Vannath said the problem could be combated by experienced actresses teaching younger ones to avoid situations in which married men coerce them into having affairs.

A union or group comprised of established and aspiring stars could perhaps brainstorm creative ways to deal with such advances, she said.

The Khmer Arts Association (KAA) provides just such a forum, said its president, Ieng Sithol, who added that the association's members have managed to avoid serious adultery scandals.

For her part, Sy Define said those committing violent acts against women should be brought to justice, though officials suggest there was some confusion as to responsibility.

Thai Naraksatya said the task does not fall under the purview of the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts because "it is a question of social security and disorder".

"The responsibility of the Ministry of Culture is only to educate, strengthen and to improve the culture and arts sectors," he said.  

Lim Mony, of the Cambodian rights group Adhoc, disputed this, saying: "The Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts also must educate artists about this problem".  

"They should host a workshop or conference to let artists know how to deal with these situations."

Sam Rainsy Party Deputy Secretary General Mu Sochua said officials need to overcome any confusion and step up to solve the problem.

"The justice system is the first step for helping the victims," she said.




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