- The Washington Times - Monday, May 1, 2000

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia Friends of Tan Samarina worried that her suspected affair with a government official would end in tragedy. But few expected the retribution would be so harsh.

In December, the bureaucrat's wife reportedly poured nitric acid on Miss Tan's head in broad daylight at an open market, burning her skin to a gangrenous crisp.

Since that incident, acid attacks have become a sick fad in Cambodia. Many Cambodia-watchers believe these attacks, as well as numerous vigilante killings in Phnom Penh, show that a culture of violence still dominates this ravaged country.

According to police sources, there have been at least a dozen acid attacks in Phnom Penh since December. Most of the victims will suffer lifelong pain and disfigurement.

"It is the fashionable way to hurt someone now," said Chea Vannath, head of Cambodia's Center for Social Development.

"Nothing is changing… . Anyone can get away with acts of violence here since a culture of impunity remains the norm," said Peter Sainsbury, managing editor of the Phnom Penh Post.

"Police are too incompetent to halt attacks, and average people are desensitized to violence and don't stop it."

Phnom Penh's notoriously corrupt police force, which is accused of overlooking many illegal activities, has made few arrests in acid-burning cases.

Though numerous witnesses identified Miss Tan's attacker as the wife of Undersecretary of State Svay Sitha, police did not issue an arrest warrant for weeks. By the time a warrant was issued, Mr. Svay's wife had disappeared. She has not been found.

"Of course, Svay bought off police to protect his wife," said Eva Galabru, director of the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights.

Reports of other unsolved savage crimes dominate the local press.

Men have killed relatives for refusing to turn on the television, mobs have chopped suspected thieves to death and gangs have attacked each other with AK-47s and rocket launchers. Even the U.S. ambassador was robbed at gunpoint while strolling through Phnom Penh. Few perpetrators have been brought to justice.

There has been little public reaction to such incidents.

"People are jaded, and the acid burnings are just another reason for them to lose hope that Cambodians will value life," said Sokcheat, a tour guide who uses just one name.

It is hardly surprising that some Cambodians are jaded, since their homeland has witnessed humanity's worst tendencies.

Between 1975 and 1979, when it was chased into jungle redoubts by invading Vietnamese forces, the Khmer Rouge imposed policies that led to the death of between 1 million and 2 million people by most estimates.

"Cambodia has never really recovered from the Khmer Rouge period," said Miss Galabru.

Cambodia's most recent rulers have done little to end the violence.

In 1993, the United Nations organized free elections in Cambodia, which were won by the opposition party of Prince Norodom Ranariddh, Funcinpec. Yet People's Party leader Hun Sen, who was supported by the armed forces, used the threat of violence to force Funcinpec to share power with him.

When Hun Sen tired of working together, his forces overthrow Funcinpec in 1997. They were accused of using fraud to win the 1998 elections.

Many diplomats believe Hun Sen ordered a 1997 grenade attack on an opposition party led by Sam Rainsy that killed at least 17 people. He is also suspected of ordering the murder of more than 100 Funcinpec and Rainsy supporters between 1998 and 2000.

Though Cambodia's high unemployment rate contributes to social tension, the government devotes 40 percent of its budget to the bloated armed forces Hun Sen's power base and less than 10 percent to social welfare programs.

Many private rights groups complain that the government frequently uses intimidate to keep them from investigating human rights abuses.

"Hun Sen has set no example at all," said Mr. Sainsbury.

Though Hun Sen has announced a major crackdown on the proliferation of weapons, critics say he has not delivered on this promise.

The government has made it more difficult to buy arms or acid, but they have only focused their crackdown on political opponents' weapons, said Miss Galabru. The government thus can use force with greater impunity, she said.

Pistols, assault rifles and even grenade launchers can still be purchased for as little as $5 throughout Cambodia. The United States gave Cambodia more than 300,000 small arms during the Vietnam War era, and more weapons flowed into the country during the 1980s.

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