Kneeling outside a motodop and car battery store on Monivong Boulevard in the capital, a 15-year-old boy spends his days piping acid into batteries with his bare hands.
His employer says she has no idea that Cambodia, as well as having an Acid Control Law – which passed in 2011 – also has a sub-decree that regulates the sale, distribution and possession of undiluted sulfuric acid.
The sub-decree, which came into effect in July, governs the use of this “strong acid”, requiring sellers to label their wares properly in Khmer with an accompanying warning label.
But the boy’s boss, who did not want to be named, told the Post this week that she has other duties, too – she has to give her customers what they want.
“I sell it if they want to buy it. I am a seller, so I have to sell strong acid or battery acid,” she said, adding she was not aware of the sub-decree's details.
In many cases, sulfuric acid bought for domestic use ends up being used as a weapon in acid attacks.
Erin Bourgois, project manager for the Cambodian Acid Survivors Charity, said sulfuric acid is regulated under the law; however, provisions in the sub-decree provide an exception for diluted sulfuric acid with a density below 33 per cent – the kind used for refilling batteries.
“The government needs to raise more awareness about the sub-decree with acid vendors, rubber plantations, law enforcement, etc. On a recent visit with legal partners in Siem Reap, neither LAC [Legal Aid of Cambodia] or [rights group] Licadho had realised the sub-decree had passed,” Bourgois said.
Neither the boy nor his employer responded when asked whether the acid being pumped into small open containers, exposed to harsh sunlight and without any proper labelling, was diluted.
Lam Sopheakneary, 45, another battery acid seller on Monivong Boulevard, said that while she buys strong acid, only a diluted version leaves her shop.
“I never ask the customer what they are going to use the acid for because I do not sell strong acid, so I do not need to ask them for their age or identity,” she said.
Article 6 of the sub-decree, however, stipulates that a “seller or distributor of strong acid of all sorts” must record all sales and issue an invoice.
The next article requires that any purchaser of “strong acid of all types” must be at least 18 years old and present an “identification card and/or license or authorisation stating the professional occupation relevant to the use of strong acid.”
Bourgois commended the government’s passage of the sub-decree, but expressed concern that it does not clearly state which government agencies are responsible for its enforcement.
Nearly all six government ministries charged with regulating and “effectively implementing” the sub-decree pointed to a different ministry as responsible for regulation.
Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers, said that his council did not play a regulatory role.
“I thought you had forgotten about that [the sub-decree],” he said, laughing. “We have no role in regulating the law. This is mostly being handled by the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and the Ministry of Interior.”
The Council of Ministers, however, is listed on the sub-decree, while the Ministry of Women’s Affairs is not.
Vesana Kiri, director of planning and health information systems at the Ministry of Health, and Tun Lean, general director of the energy department at the Ministry of Industry, Mines and Energy, both said they had no knowledge of their ministry’s involvement.
Both ministries are listed on the sub-decree along with the ministries of environment, commerce and interior, all of which either declined to comment on their ministry’s involvement or cited busy schedules as preventing them from speaking to reporters.
With uncertainty in government ranks, it is perhaps unsurprising that many vendors, including one the Post spoke to in Tuol Kork district, aren’t aware of their responsibilities.
The woman, who did not want to be named, said she had never heard of the Acid Control Law or the sub-decree.