In her wedding photo, Pen Chan Sreykuoch smiles at the camera, wearing lolly-pink lipstick and her hair swept back, large blue jewels glittering at her neck. Her head is pressed against that of her groom, Hang Chanthou, who stares – unsmiling – at the camera.
Just last week, Chan Sreykuoch, 23, was brutally stabbed to death in a bathroom, allegedly by her husband. Chan Sreykuoch’s mother cradled her body as she bled out in her arms. No arrest has been made, and police suspect that Chanthou, 26, is on the run.
Mere hours before she was murdered, Chan Sreykuoch and her husband went to Koh Prech Commune Hall in Takeo, where she demanded a divorce.
Commune Chief Chhit Pan said he knew of the financial, emotional and physical abuse Chan Sreykuoch was subjected to, but did not take steps to protect her.
“I told her to be careful but I did not alert police because they said they would go to divorce at the court,” he said in an interview this week.
There were other excuses and deflections – it was late afternoon, the police had left the office for the day. Even if they did know, Pan said, police would “not expect such a thing to happen”.
Unfortunately, cases like Chan Sreykuoch’s are predictable enough.
Commune chiefs, as elected officials, occupy a hybrid role in Cambodian communities: part disciplinarian and part adviser, part representative and part peacekeeper. But in domestic murders such as Chan Sreykuoch’s, the trend towards keeping the peace has a disturbing tendency to end in tragedy, with women’s rights advocates asserting that these tragedies could be avoided if authorities acted differently.
“Before they left, I told the wife that you have to be careful – you may be in danger. I said you should not trust him,” Pan said.
“But I did not tell the [victim’s] mother . . . I just wonder why the parents allowed the son-in-law to sleep at that house when they already knew [about his violence]. They should not have allowed him to sleep there.”
Pan said it fell outside his purview to grant the couple a divorce – only the court could provide that. Legally, he said, his hands were tied.
Indeed, there is some mixed messaging in Cambodian laws. One role of commune councils is to “reconcile the views of citizens to achieve mutual understating and tolerance”, including “assisting in resolving disputes”. The Law on Marriage and Families, passed in 1989, says that commune officials “must reconcile the case within 15 days of the receipt of the [divorce] complaint”, and that “if the case cannot be reconciled, it shall be forwarded immediately” to the court.
But rights activists say more recent laws overrule these, and to focus on whether Pan had the authority to grant a divorce misses the point: Pan – and many commune chiefs like him – fail to uphold their legal obligation to protect their female constituents from abuse.
Chak Sopheap, of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said in an email that “when there is evidence of criminal activity such as domestic violence, public officials, including Commune Chiefs, are legally responsible for reporting it to the relevant judicial authorities”. Yet the letter of the law often does not align with practice, she noted.
“Though commune-level and other local officials continue to play a central role in conflict resolution in Cambodia, this informal, traditional system is highly problematic when it comes to instances of domestic and gender-based violence, often denying the victim their agency and right to redress, and further embedding problematic and misogynistic gender norms,” Sopheap said in an email.
Indeed, according to a report titled No Punishment, No Protection: Cambodia’s Response to Domestic Violence, released by rights group Licadho last November, reconciliation was the option of choice for commune chiefs.
“In most cases, when a victim of domestic violence goes to the commune chief asking for a divorce, often bearing the marks of the latest physical assault on her, the commune chief will tell her to calm down, wait for a while and think about the well-being of her children, making the assumption that it is best for the children if the parents remain married, even in a home where there is violence,” the report reads.
Whether commune chiefs can grant a divorce also depends on whether the couple is legally married – it is common for couples to have a “traditional” marriage ceremony without getting a marriage certificate, and in those cases they can get a divorce without the courts.
“If a woman is legally married and decides that all she wants is a divorce without bringing any criminal proceedings, she can only obtain one by going to court,” the report said. “Because this is complicated and expensive, she is likely to prefer to go to the commune chief, however, the commune chief has no power to order a divorce and can only offer reconciliation.”
In some cases, though, a way out of a marriage doesn’t equate to a way out of abuse, particularly when legal consequences are absent from the equation – as was the case with El Sim in Kampong Chhnang province.
For almost two months, Sim’s broken body lay at the bottom of a well filled to the brim with earth.
Her husband, Chouch Eth, 45, told their three children Sim had run away with another man. He tried to explain away the broken rim of the 3-metre deep well and the soil piled on top, claiming a cow had fallen in and died. Eth was eventually arrested in August and charged with Sim’s murder.
Now, as Eth awaits trial in Kampong Chhnang Provincial Prison, Yot Sarith, the Trangel commune police chief, says he has some regrets.
“We don’t want this to happen. It was complicated . . . When this case happened, I felt regret,” Sarith said.
Sim and Eth were not legally married and knew that the option of an unofficial divorce was open to them through their commune chief, but were reluctant to take the step.
Meanwhile, the domestic violence between the couple was well-known to local authorities, though legal action was never taken against Eth.
Yet Police Chief Sarith maintains he and local authorities “tried all means to help” – they “kept an eye” on their case, and when the commune chief called for police assistance, they sat with the couple during disputes.
“I used to send my colleague to their home after getting information about their conflict. We educated them and they compromised and all was quiet,” he said.
But Licadho’s Naly Pilorge stressed domestic violence should be treated as a crime, meaning the commune chief and police have a “duty” to protect victims.
“Regardless of the practice, religion and culture, it is not appropriate for any authorities to negotiate a compromise between affected parties especially for financial and/or political reasons,” she said.
Such compromises and informal mediations in intimate partner violence “revictimise women and do not prosecute perpetrators effectively”, according to Rodrigo Montero, a gender specialist at the United Nations Development Program.
“All murders of women are unacceptable and preventable,” he said in an email.
“Stronger efforts are also needed to sensitize local authorities around violence against women and to improve legal enforcement,” he added, stressing the domestic violence law needed to be replaced. “Psychological and economic empowerment of women is also key to break the cycle of violence and diminish women’s dependence on perpetrators.”
Nhean Sochetra, Director General for Social Development at the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, agreed the current law “needs further improvements to hold male perpetrators accountable and protect female victims more effectively”.
“We are aiming at conducting an assessment of the Domestic Violence law this year in order to inform its replacement or amendment,” she said in an email.
Despite the “necessary legal reforms”, she said this was no excuse for commune chiefs and other local authorities failing to report abuse, highlighting the existing law still obliged them to protect victims.
“Local authorities must report immediately to police and provincial courts, and follow-up with them, to ensure that perpetrators do not have access to their victims and that protection orders are issued with diligence,” she said.
Yet another domestic violence case last year resulted in dire consequences for a Tbong Khmum family.
Phun Sreang was abused and beaten by her husband, Roem Til, with the full knowledge of the Trapaing Phlong commune chief and police. The violence reached a breaking point last August, when Sreang flung acid in her husband’s face.
But despite the laws and repeated efforts to reshape long-held community attitudes – not to mention the obvious consequences of their case – Trapaing Phlong Commune Chief Hem Yeab this week stuck by tradition.
Many times the couple had asked for a divorce, he said, only to receive a “compromise”.
“I think they had karma together,” Yeab said. “I told them that if the man was angry, the woman must endure, and if the woman was angry, the man must endure.”
“What I told them was that they should not quarrel with each other; they should live in bitterness and sweetness together.”