Tat Marina as a rising star of the karaoke scene.
The Phnom Penh Post
Written by Cat Barton and Sam Rith
Friday, 27 March 2009
After surviving a brutal acid attack, former karaoke star now fights impunity.
"In today's Cambodia, the God of Impunity reigns side by side with the King of Corruption," said then-King Norodom Sihanouk in 1999. A decade later, Cat Barton and Sam Rith see if Sihanouk's assessment still holds.
TAT Marina was beaten unconscious by the bodyguards before the well-heeled, middle-aged woman poured five litres of nitric acid onto her face. Brought to by the pain, the teenage girl flailed around in agony on the market floor, in full view of dozens of horrified onlookers, as the caustic liquid melted her skin, liquefied her flesh, burned off her ears, blinded her eyes and washed away her young, beautiful face.
"When those people did that to me, they took my life away, made me live in hell, I survived but something died [that day]... that's how I feel - I am alive but something of me died," Tat Marina said Tuesday by phone from the United States, where she now lives as a political refugee.
Ten years after the brutal, broad-daylight attack, Tat Marina's story remains still another of Cambodia's examples of impunity. The alleged perpetrator, Khoun Sophal, wife of Marina's then-lover, the high-ranking minister Svay Sitha, has never even been questioned by police, despite having an outstanding arrest warrant against her. Svay Sitha himself has been promoted to secretary of state at the Council of Ministers.
"I just want them to pay for what they've done. It would be a warning to other people: Do not hurt other people. They took my life away, took my future away.... I know how it feels and I don't want anyone else to feel like me now," Tat Marina said.
Like many other victims of crimes by high-ranking officials, Tat Marina has never been able to seek justice in the Cambodian courts. But a new film titled Finding Face, by filmmakers Skye Fitzgerald and Patti Duncan, seeks to give Tat Marina a voice within the court of public opinion.
"This family has been living under the spectre of injustice and threats for nearly a decade now. It's time they had a chance to exercise their fundamental right to free speech," Fitzgerald said via email, explaining why he decided to make the film.
"Marina's case continues to be (and should be) an embarrassment to the government of Cambodia," he wrote. "Although Cambodia is in theory a democratically elected government, the reality is that it is a functioning dictatorship run by Hun Sen and a fairly small circle of well-placed government officials. Svay Sitha happens to be one of these - and it is this corruption at the highest level that allows cases like Marina's to be slipped under the rug."
Overseas interest, local amnesia
The release of Finding Face, which was launched at the International Film Festival and Forum on Human Rights in Geneva in March, follows the December 2008 release of a graphic novel, Shake Girl, produced by the Stanford University Graphic Novel Project and inspired by Tat Marina's story.
The book follows Tat Marina's rise from poverty-stricken student to fruit-shake vendor (hence the name of the book) to karaoke star - and describes how, as a 15-year-old singer, she caught the eye of then-undersecretary of state Svay Sitha, who initially told her he was an unmarried American businessman. When she discovered the truth, Tat Marina says she tried to leave him but he responded with violence.
"I fell for him because he used sweet words," Tat Marina said Tuesday. "Now, I never speak to him. It's over between him and me."
A criminal investigation was launched after the attack, but progress was stymied by police fears of probing too deeply into the machinations of the rich and powerful.
Svay Sitha paid the costs of Tat Marina's medical treatment after the attack - on the explicit condition that she would not press charges against him or his wife. Eventually, Tat Marina's brother, Tat Sequando - who was then studying medicine in the United States - got her to America, where she received reconstructive surgery at the Shriners Burns Institute in Boston. They managed to rebuild the basic elements of her face, but the extensive damage from the attack is still clear.
"I feel awful when I walk on the street and people stare at me," she said. "I scare the kids - they freak out because of the way I look."
In the face of continuing local and international outcry over Tat Marina's case, the government argues the incident has been taken out of context and used by activists to unfairly lambaste their management of the country.
"It is an injustice for Svay Sitha that the case of his wife has been politicised and used to [advocate for] a law or regulations relating to women's rights protection," Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan told the Post last Friday.
"The case of Svay Sitha's wife has been used to denigrate the government because Svay Sitha is a member of the government," he said, adding that the couple had divorced in 1999 soon after the attack, and while Khoun Sophal should face the legal repercussions for her actions, these were not applicable to Svay Sitha.
But according to opposition parliamentarian and former Minister of Women's Affairs Mu Sochua, this is a typical response from a government immune to criticism.
"It is so shameful. Kick [Svay Sitha] out of government. That he is at the Cabinet level, that he has been promoted despite this attack [on Tat Marina] is an insult to justice," she said.
Svay Sitha did not answer repeated calls to his mobile phone, and when tracked down by reporters after a Council of Minister's meeting Friday, he declined comment.
"I do not talk to journalists. I have nothing to say to you," he told the Post before slamming the door of his black four-by-four and driving away.
A convenient amnesia afflicts government and police officials over Tat Marina's case.
"I have never seen the arrest warrant [against Khoun Sophal]. The case occurred before I became the Phnom Penh police chief," Touch Naruth said March 16.
Sy Define, a secretary of state at the Ministry of Women's Affairs, said she had "no idea" about Tat Marina's case or why there had not been any prosecution.
Yet the case has never been closed and the warrant against Khoun Sophal is still outstanding - it was issued in December 1999 and is, under Cambodian law, valid for 10 years.
"Law enforcement officials cannot simply wash their hands of Tat Marina's case by saying that they don't remember it," said Naly Pilorge, director of Cambodian rights group Licadho. "They have an obligation to investigate crimes and bring perpetrators to justice, and in this case it is clear that they have deliberately refused to do their duty."
ACID ATTACKS: a decade of suffering
Overall, since 1999, there have been at least 127 acid attacks reported in newspapers, with a total of 208 victims. The number of victims is higher than the number of attacks because acid is a very messy weapon and bystanders are often injured as well as the intended targets of the attacks. At least nine of the victims died, with the remainder often severely injured. Of the 208 victims, 112 of them were male and 96 female. The youngest victim was a three-week old baby, injured in an attack against the mother.
The impact of the impunity extended to Svay Sitha and Khoun Sophal is far-reaching. Although accurate statistical data is scarce, there was a sharp increase in reported acid attacks in the months and years after Tat Marina's attack, and the subsequent lack of a prosecution made headlines.
According to Licadho statistics, in the six months from December 1999 (when Tat Marina's attack occurred) until May 2000, there were 14 other reported attacks - the highest number of acid attacks in any six-month period in the past 10 years.
"I am sure there are more attacks. It is like the traffic in Cambodia. Who dares touch a [government] car? So now, all the people say ‘If you don't chase the big man, why should I have to follow the law?' and it becomes part of culture," said Mu Sochua.
The idea that her case could have motivated similar attacks, in part, inspired Tat Marina to make Finding Face. Despite her fear of unlocking memories from the attack, Tat Marina, who now works in a store managing customer returns, felt compelled to tell her story.
"It was so hard to make that film ... I was so confused and so lost, I didn't know what to do with [my emotions]," she said. "But I had heard there were a lot of copycats out there.... I don't agree with it [and] I felt I had to fight back, had to get justice."
Now, Tat Marina's life revolves around her 4-year-old son.
"It is so hard to leave my past behind. I am trying, but I am happy now I have my son and I love him more than anything," she said.
"He makes me strong and helps me hold on to everything, and makes me more mature, not like a little kid like before."
For Licadho's Naly Pilorge, if acid attacks are to be eliminated in Cambodia, then they must be prosecuted regardless of who the perpetrator is. As long as some attacks are not prosecuted because the perpetrators have powerful connections, it sends a message that this is not a serious crime that demands punishment, she said.
Until that happens, Tat Marina hopes her story will serve as a cautionary tale.
"I just want to tell [all young girls] to be careful, whatever they do, because what happened to me - I just don't want something like that to happen to anybody, to any young girl," she said.
Kingdom of Impunity: a few of the many cases yet to be solved