Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Acid victim to request asylum

Acid victim to request asylum

Acid victim to request asylum

Ya Soknim may face uphill battle as she seeks refugee status to move to Malaysia

Ya Soknim
Chea Ratha
In Soklyda

THE victim of an acid attack at the hands of a high-ranking military police official plans to seek asylum in Malaysia, but whether or not she fits within the legal definition of a refugee remains unclear, a legal expert has said.

Ya Soknim and 18 relatives plan to apply for refugee status through the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Malaysia.
Ya Soknim’s husband, Oung Vibol, said family members fear for their lives because the six people convicted in the May 2008 attack – including former Military Police Brigadier General Chea Ratha – remain free.

“We live in fear and are careful about our security every minute because we don’t know what will happen to us,” Oung Vibol said.

Family members say they have received death threats from people associated with Chea Ratha, who remains on Interpol’s wanted list.

Chea Ratha and five accomplices were convicted in absentia in November for the acid attack, which left Ya Soknim with severe scarring on her face and torso. Prosecutors accused Chea Ratha of ordering the attack after Ya Soknim’s niece, beauty queen In Soklyda, broke off a sexual relationship.

Oung Vibol said the family has been in discussion with the UNHCR about applying for refugee status. Seventeen family members are already in Malaysia, he said, and his wife is in Vietnam seeking treatment.

“I don’t know what kind of refugees we are,” he said. “But we are victims of threats from the perpetrator.”

Malaysia is not a state party to the 1951 Refugee Convention, effectively leaving the country with no government-led framework for dealing with applicants. The UNHCR office in Kuala Lumpur is responsible for determining refugee status for asylum-seekers in Malaysia.

It is also unclear whether Ya Soknim and her family fit within the strict legal definition of a refugee. The convention defines a refugee as someone who has a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion”.

Asylum-seekers, then, may face an uphill battle if they cannot prove they are victims of state-sanctioned persecution, said Lian Yong, a legal officer with the Jesuit Refugee Service in Phnom Penh. “Someone who’s not part of an ethnic group that is widely known to be targeted ... would have a really hard time,” Yong said.

Asylum-seekers can argue there has been a failure of the state to offer protection, or that the state is unable or unwilling to protect them, Yong said.

However, it is unclear if such a definition would apply in the Ya Soknim case. Authorities did pursue prosecution of Chea Ratha, Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak noted.

“I think the family should be grateful to the Cambodian government and the authorities for the justice that has been provided in this case so far,” said Khieu Sopheak, who added that the investigation into Chea Ratha’s whereabouts is “continuing”. Still, the family is welcome to seek asylum elsewhere, he said. “It is up to them. Whether they will be accepted is up to the UNHCR,” he said.

Rights advocates, however, say Ya Soknim has a strong basis for making an asylum claim for her family abroad.

“It doesn’t appear the government has any mechanism or any will to protect these citizens – in this case, the family of Ya Soknim,” said Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights. “I think they have a very strong case.”

A UNHCR spokeswoman in Kuala Lumpur said she was unable to comment on specific cases.

MOST VIEWED

  • Stock photo agencies cash in on Khmer Rouge tragedy
    Stock-photo companies selling images from S-21 raises ethics concerns

    A woman with short-cropped hair stares directly into the camera, her head cocked slightly to the side. On her lap is a sleeping infant just barely in the frame. The woman was the wife of a Khmer Rouge officer who fell out of favour, and

  • US think tank warns of China's 'ulterior motives'

    A US think tank on Tuesday warned that spreading Chinese investment in the Indo-Pacific follows a pattern of leveraging geopolitical influence at the expense of the nations receiving investment, including Cambodia. The report looks at a sample of 15 Chinese port development projects, noting that the

  • Defence Ministry denies weapons in smuggling case came from Cambodia

    After a Thai national was arrested last week for allegedly smuggling guns from Cambodia to Thailand, Cambodia's Defence Ministry has claimed the weapons seized during the arrest are not used in Cambodia, despite the fact that both types of rifle seized are commonly found in

  • More than three tonnes of ivory reportedly bound for Cambodia seized in Mozambique

    A total of 3.5 tonnes of ivory reportedly bound for Cambodia was seized by authorities in Mozambique late last week, according to the NGO Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). CITES' information was based on a report from the