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November 30, 2000

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MARCH 3, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 8

A State Of Injustice
Violence and impunity are alive and well

Dominic Faulder for Asiaweek
Vicious Trend: Horn Hou gives what comfort he can to his son, Heang, whose wife blinded him in an acid attack

The Kossamak Hospital on Phnom Penh's airport road bears two light spots high on one wall. They are paint patches covering rocket blast scars from the political violence of mid-1997. It left scores dead, hundreds of homes damaged, countless businesses looted, and foreign investors and tourists spooked.

That dark time has passed. There is a new coalition and a vigorous debate on how to bring the vanquished Khmer Rouge finally to trial. Cambodia is in the second year of its first real political peace in three decades. A new sense of order is gingerly beginning to assert itself, and some detect the glint of modest prosperity down the track. "Not long ago, we had neither rice nor rights," Lao Mong Hay, executive director of the Khmer Institute of Democracy told a recent journalism forum. "I have that in mind all the time."

But Cambodia has only really moved from war without justice to peace without justice. Years of factional war, a heavily armed populace, a corrupt judiciary, incompetent police, procrastination on a tribunal for the Khmer Rouge - all contribute to a culture in which violence is still considered the way to get things done.

In recent months, the Kossamak and its wealthier counterpart, Calmette Hospital, have handled victims of a spate of particularly vicious attacks. At the Kossamak, Horn Heang, 28, spends most of his day with a dirty rag covering what remains of his face. A few months ago, his common-law wife of twelve years, Nang, 30, threw acid over him. "She was angry because he was divorcing her," explains Heang's father, Hou, a farmer from Prey Veng. "She was a gambler." Nang has been imprisoned for 15 years. Heang's sentence is far worse. He is blind and in constant pain, his family's support his only consolation. "We have nothing," says his father.

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Hong Kong: The former colony is starting to trust the motherland

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Japan: Obuchi raises (but doesn't fire) the starting gun for polls

Cambodia: A culture of violence and impunity undermines justice

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Heang is one of at least five acid- attack victims brought to the Kossamak since November. The incidents signify the divide between rich and poor - not just in terms of healthcare, but in the way justice is served too. One man was doused by his wife's former husband. A Vietnamese woman was blinded in one eye by her husband. And a moto-taxi driver was splashed in an attack aimed at his female passenger. But by far the most famous victim is Tat Marina, the alleged mistress of Svay Sitha, an undersecretary of state and adviser to Prime Minister Hun Sen. The once beautiful teenaged model and karaoke singer was attacked by a woman and five men in early December while she was eating a bowl of rice soup. Her assailants pinned her to the ground, knocked her unconscious and poured at least two liters of acid over her head and back. She miraculously survived with nearly 45% of her body burned, and has gone to Vietnam for treatment. She may be sent on to the U.S. for reconstructive surgery. Khuon Sophal, the wife of Svay Sitha, has been charged in the attack. But unlike Heang's wife, she has not been arrested. Many in Cambodia believe she is being sheltered by politically powerful people. Tat Marina's family, meanwhile, may possibly have accepted money for not pressing charges, in line with the current Cambodian trend of "buying justice." Her relatives were already dependent on Svay Sitha to pay her medical bills.

Police have vaguely attempted to regulate the sale of acid, which is used in various metallurgical processes. But there is no public confidence in their abilities. Recent months have seen an alarming rise in the incidence of so-called "people's courts," a euphemism for murderous public lynchings - usually of petty thieves - in which the police often look on. And well-armed police and soldiers are suspected of involvement in an ongoing kidnapping epidemic. In the second half of January, there were at least four incidents involving ransoms ranging from less than a thousand dollars to a reported $170,000. Nobody was killed in this lucrative racket.

Prime Minister Hun Sen has recently taken action against corrupt and incompetent members of the judiciary, responding in part to critics who say that Cambodia is incapable of mounting a fair and credible trial of the surviving Khmer Rouge leadership without U.N. participation. He has, however, balked at tackling the culture of impunity that shelters Cambodia's rich and shameless. Indeed, controversy stalks the PM himself. In October, the French magazine L'Express ran a sensational story alleging that his wife, Bun Rany, was responsible for the murder last year of his supposed mistress, Piseth Pilika, a beautiful dancer. The First Couple vehemently deny the account and Hun Sen's lawyer in Paris continues to reserve his position on legal action against the magazine.

A Cambodian proverb warns pretty young women that a married man may shoot her if he cannot have his way - and that his wife will certainly shoot her if he does. For Marina and Pilika, the old saw may have been all too true - but is no less repugnant for that.

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