On Tuesday, real-estate tycoon Sok Bun was sentenced to a suspended three-year sentence in the beating of TV personality Ek Socheata (better known as Ms Sasa), which was captured on camera in July. He’ll likely serve less than three more months (in addition to a $1,500 fine) after Bun and Socheata reached an out-of-court settlement, according to her lawyer. This week, Audrey Wilson spoke with Dr Katherine Brickell, an expert on domestic violence in Cambodia, about how the Sok Bun case fits in with a wider culture of violence against women in the Kingdom
How do you think this case in particular illustrates the gap between domestic-violence law and practice that you have studied in Cambodia?
While the gap between the rhetoric and practice of human rights in Cambodia is not unexpected, the 2012-2015 study I led on domestic violence law puts it into stark relief. The country has made an investment in the policy infrastructure for prevention and reduction, yet this rarely translates into women being able to claim the rights to which they are entitled without risk. This week is a poignant reminder of the mismatch which has come to define so many facets of Cambodian life: Sok Bun’s “light” trial outcome coinciding with the One Billion Rising campaign, which each year highlights the impunity and injustice that survivors of various forms of violence face.
Why do you think that cases like this are settled out of court?
Given the lack of public trust in the court system in Cambodia, I think it is unsurprising that the case was partly settled out of court. Our study found use of the 2005 Law on The Prevention of Domestic Violence and the Protection of Victims is actively discouraged by some local stakeholders because of the dangers of corruption that victims may face, including the extortion of informal fees. Local reconciliation remains the modus operandi in domestic violence cases, particularly in rural areas.
How does the involvement of alcohol shape views of domestic-violence and crime in Cambodia, in your experience?
Multiple studies have found that single-cause factors like alcohol are identified by policy implementers as root causes of domestic violence, glossing over underlying inequalities that contribute to men’s violence. The same trend can be said of my own research data, which showed how men locally often use drinking as an external factor to “explain” and divest responsibility for the violence they perpetrate. That said, there is evidence that alcohol consumption does play a contributory role in the occurrence and severity of violence.
The high-profile nature of this case has increased discussion about violence against women in Cambodia, at least for a news cycle. But what do you think a case like this obscures – especially about the average case of gender-based violence in Cambodia?
Most gender-based violence is happening in peoples’ homes. But this case has, for me, brought about a renewed interest in the politics of violence against women in the public sphere. This one case has attracted Hun Sen’s condemnation as “intolerable”, whereas multiple incidences of violence against female human-rights activists on the capital’s streets have met quite a different response. The selective deployment of rule of law and, indeed, the politicised framing of what “counts” as violence against women is, in my opinion, a moot point in the Cambodian policy circles charged with its prevention and alleviation. While the sentencing of Sok Bun clearly hasn’t gone far enough – and has rightly attracted criticism for its leniency this week – the “average” woman in Cambodia who has suffered violence is not able to even have her “day in court” and legally sanction her perpetrator[s].
Based on your research, what would you say is the way forward against this kind of violence?
To put it simply, our study found that passing laws is not enough: there needs to be fundamental change in the social, economic and political realms of Cambodian life if domestic violence survivors are to be able to use the fullest extent of the law without fear of repercussions. Sok Bun’s sentence is, alas, a missed opportunity to say that enough is enough – violence against women will not be tolerated, even by those most powerful and most protected in Cambodian society today. Be it a celebrity coming to the aid of friend, or a housewife protecting her home from advancing bulldozers, elite and ordinary women in Cambodia are too often subject to violence for peacefully defending their, and others’, interests.