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Acid: a weapon close to hand

Acid: a weapon close to hand

Its use in the rubber trade makes it accessible, and some vendors sell to anyone.

Kampong Cham Province
NEARLY three dec-ades after he suffered burns to his face and upper body in an acid attack, Orb Rath, 49, comes into contact with the corrosive liquid on an almost daily basis. Seven years ago, he took a job at the Chrab Rubber Plantation in Da commune, located in Kampong Cham province’s Memot district, where he mixes acid with rubber sap.

“I mix it on-site at the rubber plantation, and then bring the hard rubber to sell to a factory,” he said, and added that 100 litres of sap can be hardened with just 1 litre of diluted acid.

Accidents on the job, he said, are infrequent. “The rubber plantation director usually tells all workers to be careful when using acid, so rubber workers rarely get burned on the rubber plantation,” he said.

The problem, he said, is the easy availability of acid near the plantations, and the fact that it is sometimes used to resolve personal disputes. His own injuries, for instance, came at the hands of an aunt who had an argument with his mother, the subject of which has never been made clear to him.

“The attacks happen at people’s homes when they have violence or argue with each other, for instance like what happened to me,” he said.
The Cambodian Acid Survivors Charity (CASC) has also expressed concern that the concentration of rubber plantations in Kampong Cham – the province has more than any other – has led to an inordinate number of acid accidents and attacks there.

A CASC report released last month shows that 41 percent – by far the highest proportion – of 236 acid cases recorded by the group between 1985 and 2009 took place in Kampong Cham, and makes a link to the rubber plantations.

“There seems to be a prima facie correlation between incidence of attack, and availability of acid,” the report says. “In Kampong Cham province, where acid is widely available due to its use in the process of making rubber, there is a relatively high rate of acid related crimes compared to other provinces.”

Yin Song, director of the Rubber Research Institute of Cambodia, said Sunday that Kampong Cham was home to “hundreds of thousands of hectares of rubber plantations”, though he could not provide exactly statistics.

Prom Sopha, the chief of Da commune, said Friday that acid sellers do not make an effort to screen customers. “It is easy for people to buy acid to do a crime because the sellers don’t think about whether these people are rubber workers or not; they sell to all who want to buy acid,” he said.

But although they expressed surprise at the number of attacks occurring in Kampong Cham, vendors at the Memot district market said they were already aware of the dangers posed by acid, largely because they had heard about attacks in Phnom Penh, where CASC recorded 16 percent of its cases.
Chan Nara, 40, said he sells diluted acid to customers who want to refill automobile batteries, and that he only sells pure acid to rubber plantation workers.

“I don’t sell to everyone who comes to ask for acid. I have to see whether I know the buyers or not, and I have to see if their containers have spots from the rubber or not,” he said. “If the buyers are not rubber workers I don’t sell to them because I don’t know what they will use the acid for.”

Sok Vouch, 51, said she refills batteries with diluted acid, but refuses to sell acid in any other form because she is concerned about the possibility of attacks.

“There are many people from the villages asking to buy acid, but I don’t sell to them,” she said.

“I don’t want money from making other people hurt.”

This level of caution, however, is not exhibited by all vendors.

Ngem Eoun, the sole acid seller in Da commune, and the source of acid for Orb Rath and many of his colleagues, said he was not concerned about what customers did with their acid so long as they didn’t harm his own family.

“I do business for earning money,” he said. “I care only around my house, but I don’t care when they buy it already and go way from my house.”

Prom Sopha said that around 20 to 25 percent of the 3,963 families living in Da commune currently have members employed by rubber plantations, a figure that he expects to increase rapidly in the coming years.

“I think acid use is increasing, and attacks will also increase, because most people now are interested in planting rubber. It is more lucrative than other work,” he said.

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