The Sok Bun assault and violence against women in Cambodia
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The Sok Bun assault and violence against women in Cambodia

By Alexandra Demetrianova

It took one real estate tycoon and a TV celebrity to bring the daily reality for many women in Cambodia under an unprecedented spotlight. Violence on women is widespread, but rarely it has been discussed so openly as is the case this time. Millionaire Sok Bun’s assault on TV icon Ek Socheata, also known as Miss SaSa, in one of Phnom Penh’s restaurant was so brutal and the video leaked online so graphic that no one could let it pass. Even PM Hun Sen commented on the case and publicly called on Sok Bun to come forward, saying: “Your money won’t solve this.”

The real estate millionaire offered Miss SaSa US$100,000 in compensation or possibly as a bribe to drop charges. She refused, to surprise of no one. Millions of Cambodians have seen SaSa’s social media photos with bruises on her face and body. There was no way for Sok Bun, as prominent and rich as he is, to escape reality. And he didn’t. After calls from different state officials including Hun Sen himself, Sok Bun came out of hiding (in Singapore or Cambodia according to different sources) and is now in being investigated for the brutal assault. Reportedly he’s been arrested.

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A red circle shows Sok Bun’s bodyguard, in the top center image, grabbing his pistol as the actress throws her phone at the tycoon. Pic: AP.

As well as the charges and prison sentence Sok Bun faces, he will be hard hit by the loss of face. Footage from security camera in the Phnom Penh restaurant shows him savagely beating Ek Socheata, pulling her by hair and even kicking her as she falls on the ground. His rage is assisted by a driver/security guard, who at one point charges his gun and points it at the head of the helpless woman being kicked and beaten on the floor. Staff in the restaurant were obviously afraid to interfere physically. The assault took place when Miss SaSa refused to let him drag her intoxicated Japanese friend away with him. A refusal and will to protect the well-being of a friend was met with brutal rage and total disregard for free will. Thanks to vibrant social media, the video has received millions of views. Never before has violence on women been shown so publicly and graphically exposed in Cambodia. Moreover, the incident involved celebrities and powerful people and that’s certainly the reason why the script was rather different to what Cambodia is used to.

Ek Socheata belongs to a well-known family in Cambodia and therefore is in a powerful position apart from her fame as an ex-TV host. If she were an ordinary Cambodian woman, she would probably never have reported the crime and/or would be silenced with money or threats. Whether it was her famous personality or the brutality of the assault, Sok Bun immediately fled into hiding. The powerful real estate magnate has given up his “oknha” title, given to those who make significant financial and development contributions to Cambodia. He also stepped down from top leadership and representative positions he held. And inevitably, Sok Bun offered money – first US$40,000, then US$100,000. But Miss SaSa has stood strong, leading by example for many other women: “I refuse to let anyone use money to buy freedom”. She’s hoping Sok Bun will be punished according to the law.

Sok Bun even pleaded for his freedom directly to PM Hun Sen saying he needed to “fulfill my obligation as a father and husband for my family.” But no matter how hard Sok Bun tried, it was too late. Interior Minsiter Sar slammed officials obstructing just procedure, saying it would “be an insult to Prime Minister and the police”. PM Hun Sen said: “Committing such violence on a weak woman … I can’t believe a person who has money, a good reputation and a [royal title] could commit such a crime.”

This statement really suggests that people who are rich, famous and revered by society don’t commit crimes or violence on women. But just the opposite is true. Violence on women knows no poverty or status bounds, and happens at every level of society. But in Cambodia, the justice system has been traditionally favorable to those who have status and money. Many cases of violence, deadly accidents and even murder end with pay-offs by those powerful or rich enough to walk free. Given the ongoing widespread poverty in Cambodia, mainly in rural areas, it can often be considered moral and ethical to pay money to the victim or the grieving family, and can lead to a suspended or reduced sentence.

But violence against women in Cambodia is a whole other matter. While there are laws in place to protect women, the local justice system rarely enforces them. According to various research and surveys, domestic violence is still widely considered a private issue. Victims often don’t report physical violence. A report from 2014 on violence on women and law enforcement found that 76 percent of interviewed victims never sought help after physical assaults and 42 percent thought violence can be excused if the attacker was under influence of alcohol. Therefore Miss SaSa’s case and the publicity of Sok Bun’s assault can have a positive outcome in Cambodia. Although much still depends on the process and verdict – if and how Sok Bun is prosecuted – calls for his arrest and condemnation of the brutal attack by public and top officials in the country are unprecedented. Also, Miss SaSa’s refusal to be bought is a positive example for Cambodian women.

Much remains to be done in Cambodia and the crusade against violence on women continues. Sexual violence for example is a serious issue in daily life of Cambodian women. A UN multi-country study from 2013 found, that one in five Cambodian men admitted to raping their partner at least once in their life. Out of those, 53 percent were 19 years old and younger when they committed their first rape. Half of the interviewed women believed they couldn’t refuse sex with their husband.

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Cambodian actress Miss Sasa, 28, whose real name is Ek Socheata, speaks to journalists after the vicious assault. Pic: AP.

A survey conducted last year prior to Valentine’s Day found, that almost half of the young men interviewed admitted to engage in non-consensual sex with female partners on the international love day, even if the women refuse. Love and Sexual Relationships by independent public health researcher Tong Soprach interviewed women and men aged 15-24 years old. This survey drew fears of rape culture, which is evidently present in Cambodia.

Moreover, gang rape is also an existing social phenomenon in Cambodia. It is known as “bauk”, literally meaning “plus”. Research by Tong Soprach investigating the prevalence of bauk in Cambodia interviewed moto-taxi drivers across the country. What they found was shocking – gang rape is present in 21 of 24 Cambodia’s provinces. Bauk often happens to sex workers, hired by one man, only to be gang raped by his friends. Sex workers feel reluctant to seek help or report the crimes because they are stigmatized by their profession.  The author of the research told Cambodian media, that the young men committing bauk think it’s funny.

What is ultimately shocking is Cambodia’s government response to these surveys. Unlike Sok Bun and Miss SaSa’s case, no state official has ever been willing to admit that rape is a serious issue in Cambodia. Rather, they avoid the topic. After the Valentine’s Day survey last year, the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport said in a statement it “regrets that a small number of youths… follow foreign cultures without consideration and think that the 14th of February, Valentine’s Day, is the day that they shall sacrifice their bodies for sweethearts and cause the loss of personal and family dignity.” In between the lines, the language of Cambodian government chooses to basically blame rape on foreign culture. The Ministry followed shortly after, saying that the statement should “remind the youth that sometimes they are confused on Valentine’s Day and do things that conflict with the Cambodian culture.”

About the author

Alexandra Demetrianova is a freelance journalist based in Bangkok covering politics, society and life in Southeast Asia. She specializes in human rights, environment and development. Originally from Slovakia, she is currently finishing a Masters degree in International Relations at the Faculty of Political Science at Thammasat University.