Acid has become the weapon of choice in fighting marital infidelity in Cambodia. Angry wives often attack their rivals with acid, leaving them painfully scarred. Although the government restricts the sale of battery acid to prevent attacks, the violence continues.
Women in Cambodia increasingly are fighting back when their husbands take mistresses. They are pouring acid on their rivals to leave them permanently scarred.
One of the best known cases involved Tat Marina, an 18-year-old actress and singer who was doused with acid by the wife of an undersecretary of state.
Kek Galabru founder of human rights group Licadho, says that case spawned a wave of attacks, with at least 20 reported last year. "It is only last year that we started seeing them, and then we see more and more," she says. "It became a kind of way, a popular way, a cheap way, to take revenge."
She says part of the problem is that Cambodia's decades of war have made brutality acceptable, and it often goes unpunished.
One victim did go to court. Som Rasmey, now 24 years old, was working in a restaurant when she met Colonel Lim Sok Heng. The two began an affair and had a daughter. "Before the attack, I lived a free life," she says. "I could travel anywhere. Even though I did not have much money, my life was happy."
But two years ago, the colonel's wife led some friends to Som Rasmey's house. They pinned Som Rasmey to the ground as the wife poured acid over her. "I can not make my face right again. I can not make myself beautiful," she says. "I am living like a thing with no soul, not a person. ... I can not imagine being happy anymore."
The colonel and his wife took the baby, and took Som Rasmey to Vietnam. But she returned to Cambodia and went to court, seeking compensation, custody of her child, and justice for the woman she says stole her beauty. "I am very scared, while the people who did this to me live freely," she says. "They are happy and I am miserable. This is injustice. ... I dare not say that the court is corrupt and accepted a bribe, but this is how it seems to me in my own eyes. ... I want to see my daughter, but I can not."
Many judges in Cambodia are suspected of being corrupt, and some have said their low salaries, often $20 a month, justify taking money. Some judges say the money is not bribery, but payment for services rendered or gifts.
But Judge Tit Sothy says he received no money when he ruled in Som Rasmey's case. In an interview, he says that he sometimes takes money as a gift from the winning side, but only after a case is finished. The judge dismissed Som Rasmey's request for custody of her daughter and gave her attacker a suspended prison sentence. "Rasmey made a promise," he says. "She made a contract not to complain about this event after she went to Vietnam. But after that, she complained to the court by saying that Sok Heng detained her in Vietnam. We have seen the contract. He did not detain her. They thumb-printed the contract. I asked her why she put her thumbprint on the contract and she replied that she was frightened. We did not think this was the case. She loved the colonel and he begged her and she agreed."
Some activists have little hope that acid attacks will stop or that attackers will be punished anytime soon. Ung Sophea, monitoring coordinator at the Cambodian Women's Crisis Center, says, in her words, "the judicial system in Cambodia can not deliver justice."