Cambodian acid attacks on the rise

2010-11-19 11:39

Phnom Penh - Morm Nheb still remembers how her burnt flesh smelt when her ex-husband doused her face with acid, scarring her for life.

"It's not a good smell," said the mother-of-two, whose life has been a struggle ever since the day her ex-husband vented his anger over their divorce.

"There's no going back after I was splashed with acid, and I am living like a dead body or a living ghost," she said.

She is one of a growing number of acid burn victims in Cambodia, where the caustic liquid is easily and cheaply available - and attackers are rarely brought to justice.

"We have difficulty in trying to get people to press charges because they are sometimes very fearful of the perpetrator," said Chhun Sophea, a programme manager at the Cambodian Acid Survivors Charity (CASC).

In other cases, such as Nheb's, the attackers go on the run and are never heard from again.

No official statistics

Since CASC opened its doors in 2006, it has helped around 300 people like Nheb by offering free medical and legal aid, counselling and skills training.

While there are no official statistics and many cases go unreported, Sophea said acid crimes are on the rise.

From January to October this year, CASC recorded 18 attacks, in which 34 people were injured.

Sophea said that was "definitely an increase on last year", when 33 people were treated overall, including some injured in accidents.

The Cambodian government has acknowledged the problem and is now in the process of drafting a law that would regulate acid sales and impose harsher sentences on attackers.

Drafting committee deputy chairman Ouk Kimlek said convicted perpetrators could face between five years and life in prison under the new law, expected to be approved by the end of the year.

A problem in other Asian countries

"Acid is a horrible thing," he said. "We are looking to put those attackers in jail for what they have done to the victims, so we can curtail more acid crimes."

Acid violence is a serious problem in some other Asian countries as well.

Bangladesh has seen 86 cases with 111 injuries in the first nine months of the year, according to the London-based Acid Survivors Foundation (ASF), an NGO campaigning to make acid attacks a criminal offence in the country.

In Pakistan, women's rights group the Aurat Foundation recorded 20 cases of acid throwing in the first half of 2010.

The vast majority of victims in those countries are women, but in Cambodia men are just as likely to be a target.

"A lot of people think acid crimes are related to love triangle issues," said Sophea.

But that is not always the case, she said, and the motives for such attacks range from jealousy to anger and revenge.

"It's not focused on the women here. Men have their anger against men also and women get really upset with husbands too. The anger and resentment builds up over time and they don't have any way of letting it out," she said.


Som Bunnarith, aged 39, a long-term resident at CASC, is one of these male victims.

He was burnt by his wife five years ago when they were arguing over his many late nights out. The attack left him blind.

"I cry. I am very sorry about my eyes," said the former salesman.

He says he has forgiven his wife. They both work at CASC now, and he does not want to see her jailed.

Nheb, on the other hand, still wants justice.

She was unable to get her factory job back after the attack, and feels ostracised.

"When people look at you, whether it's pity or just a curious look, it's the most horrific thing," she said.

"When they see acid victims, they say, 'If you take someone's husband, here is the result.' That infuriates me."