The Cambodia Daily WEEKEND, Saturday and Sunday, February 5-6,
Healing the Wounds: Tat Marina speaks out after a brutal attack that's
raised questions about privilege and impunity in Cambodia.
By Jeff Smith and Kay Kimsong
The Cambodia Daily
HO CHI MINH City -- Inside a small private room in the burn unit of a sprawling
10-story government hospital here, 16-year-old acid-attack victim Tat Marina recently lay
motionless on her back, her head bandaged, her eyes staring blankly at the ceiling.
Publicity photo. Tat Marina worked as a fruit shake vendor
before breaking into modeling.
|Her body beneath a green hospital dressing gown and a white sheet
resembled a twig rather than a human. Since suffering an acid attack on Dec 5, the karaoke
video actress had nearly died and her body had withered from 51 kg to 37 kg [112 lbs to 81
For nearly an hour, Tat Marina had been still except to lift her burned right arm and to
softly ask for more cushioning under her head. But even in this fragile state, she wanted
to talk and, with great effort, uttered a few barely audible phrases.
hurt, I'm very hurt that I cannot do anything in the future," she said, starting to
cry. "I cry to reduce the hurt from my heart, from my mind. I don't know why this has
happened to me."
|It has been two months since Tat Marina, known as "Rina" in the
karaoke video business, was attacked while eating rice soup with her 3-year-old niece near
the Olympic Market in Phnom Penh.
According to police, witnesses and family members,
Tat Marina was yanked to the ground, kicked and kneed in the chest repeatedly until she
passed out. She was then doused with more than a liter of nitric acid.
At Kossamak Hospital in Phnom Penh
a month after the attack. Nitric acid
burnt off her ears and much of her hair.
Soon after the attack, the district police chief identified the prime suspects as Khoun
Sophal the wife of Council of Ministers Undersecretary of State Svay Sitha, and two
bodyguards. In late December a municipal court judge issued an arrest warrant for Khoun
But today Khoun Sophal remains at large and the two bodyguards who allegedly accompanied
her remain unidentified with no warrants for their arrest.
Lek Vannak, the municipality's judiciary police chief, said Thursday in Phnom Penh that he
believes Khoun Sophal is in the capital under someone's protection.
"We are working hard to try to locate her whereabouts and arrest her," Lek
Vannak said. "I have asked all police stationed in all districts to be
watchful." He said Svay Sitha hasn't been questioned, "because a husband and
wife usually love each other, and I don't think he could speak [the truth]."
Police previously acknowledged that a key piece of evidence--a car seized at the
scene--was almost immediately handed back to Svay Sitha's family "following orders
from the top."
The high-profile case has cast a number of issues into the spotlight: the issue of men
taking mistresses or what are called "second wives," the increasing number of
brutal acid attacks, and a persistent culture of impunity as Cambodia tries to convince
the international community that it can conduct an impartial trial of Khmer Rouge leaders.
This week, Prime Minister Hun Sen would not respond directly when asked at an Asian
editors forum in Phnom Penh what the government would do about the Tat Marina case. He
said reporters had the right to ask questions, but politicians had the right to decide
whether or not to answer them. "That's it," he said, moving on to the next
But for Tat Marina, the story is not about broad issues and unanswered questions. For her,
the story is about an intense personal struggle to survive and find new meaning in a
society where beauty is defined by outward appearance, in which second wives are scorned
by society, and in which misfortunes are attributed to misdeeds in past lives.
"I don't know what I did in a past life [to deserve this]," Tat Marina said in a
recent interview in a hospital here in Ho Chi Minh City. "But I believe I might have
done some bad things..."
In fact, Tat Marina might have escaped harm if it hadn't been for a string of bad luck
that fateful day.
Instead, she faces years of recovery.
Her head, neck, back, chest and wrists were all ravaged by acid burns. Her ears have been
removed. Her lips remain swollen and plastic tubes have been installed in her nostrils to
keep her nose from closing. She can see close up, but objects farther away are fuzzy. Some
days, she said she can hear; other days she can barely hear at all.
A doctor in Vietnam told her not to look at photographs of herself or look into the mirror
because it might make her depressed.
"But I want to see my photo," Tat Marina said.
She added, however that when she looks at herself, "I look like a ghost, so I hate
myself, detest myself, Everyone is afraid of me, including my 3-year-old niece. She
stopped calling me mom. She will only touch my fingers."
Indeed, Tat Marina's biggest challenge may be facing and conquering her conviction that
she has no place in society.
"In Cambodia, the view in society is that the second wife...is no good. She took
someone's husband," said Sam Kaknitha, a senator who participated in recent
discussions about acid attacks, jealous wives and second wives.
Disfigured women in Cambodia generally have little future, she added.
Interviews with family members including a brother in the US, doctors and others paint the
following picture of Tat Marina leading through the day of the acid attack. Many family
members would not talk because they fear Svay Sitha may decide to no longer pay for Tat
Marina's medical expenses.
|Tat Marina was born on Oct 21, 1983, the third-youngest in a Phnom Penh family of
A family member remembers her as a joyful child who was always pretty and popular.
"She liked to have fun, make everyone happy," the family member said. Outside
the home, she was a bit more reserved.
Tat Marina was forced to drop out of school when she was a young teen-ager to help support
her parents, who are in their mid-50s and early 60s.
Tamarina, publicity photo
"Her parents are very poor. They did not have a job," said a family member.
"She had to look for a job to help out with the living expenses."
Tat Marina became a fruitshake vendor near the corners of Monivong and Kampuchea Krom
boulevards. But her dream was to become a karaoke star.
She started spending some of her extra money going to small karaoke places to practice
singing, a family member said. She eventually landed work with a film production company.
That job didn't work out, but it led to modeling assignments for alcohol advertisements.
Golden CD Music Productions, which produces karaoke videos, spotted her at an advertising
show in 1998 and hired her to do karaoke videos.
The karaoke videos didn't require her to sing. Instead she was expected to act coy, slinky
and occasionally sway rhythmically to the music. In one cut from the video disc Golden
Karaoke Vol 17, Tat Marina is wearing a black off-the-shoulder gown and is engaged in a
playful pantomime with a young Cambodian man on the grounds of a pagoda off National Route
Kong Vuthy, a producer for Golden CD, said the company hired Tat Marina because of her
good looks and paid her $20 a day for her work
"She was not very popular at the time [she performed], but she might have been
popular in the future," Kong Vuthy said in a recent interview. "It is very
difficult to say who performs better because there are so many karaoke performers."
Tat Marina was generous with her money, a family member said, frequently giving neighbors
in need 10,000 riel [US$2.63]. She also helped support her parents and paid her younger
brother's school fees.
"At the time, I was so happy to have money to pay for my parents and my younger
brother," Tat Marina said.
Tat Marina & her brother
|Tat Sequindo, a medical assistant in the US, met his sister for the first
time last year. He had survived the Khmer Rouge regime, lived in border camps and arrived
in the US in 1983. It wasn't until the mid-1980s he said, that he got confirmation that
his parents were still alive.
"I had prayed to God to bring me to see my family," Tat Sequindo said in a
recent interview in Phnom Penh. Last May his prayer came true with a family reunion in
But that dream turned into a nightmare, when Tat Sequindo returned in mid-January to
see Tat Marina in a hospital bed disfigured for life.
"I felt so depressed and confused," Tat Sequindo said. "It was like she
just got up from the killing fields. She looked like a little piece of incense."
Tat Marina's youthful beauty and relative popularity as a karaoke video performer made her
a prime target to become someone's mistress.
In Cambodia, men with money often look for young, attractive women to support as
mistresses, or second wives. The tradition dates back decades. Karaoke video stars
recently have become sought after.
Tat Marina said that a friend of Svay Sitha knew her. One day, according to a family
member, Svay Sitha walked into the studio to meet Tat Marina and gave her his telephone
At the time, Svay Sitha was a rising star in the government and the ruling CPP.
The gregarious official, known for his quick wit and chain-smoking had been an adviser to
Hun Sen, had played a key role on a government human rights committee and was now
secretary-general of a government committee working to reduce the military.
Svay Sitha couldn't be reached this week and didn't respond to a written request for an
Tat Marina said Svay Sitha telephoned her many times after their first meeting, saying he
was an unmarried businessman and that he "loved" her very much. She said she was
"I wasn't interested because I thought he had a wife already," she said.
Finally, his persistence paid off and they started seeing each other beginning in early
1999, Tat Marina said.
She was 15 years old at the time.
Tat Marina said she grew to truly love Svay Sitha, and not for his money or property.
"I loved him because he loved me so much," she said.
He set her up with an apartment moving the location once, according to family member. The
second apartment, which cost $120 a month, was just a few hundred meters from the site of
After Tat Marina found out Svay Sitha had a wife, she said her feelings changed. She said
she didn't want to live "illegally" and decided to end the relationship.
"I tried to tell him many times: 'I can't live with you because you have a wife
But she said, Svay Sitha pressured her to stay with him, saying she would have a bigger
problem if she left him. He would get angry when she tried to leave him, she said. He also
demanded that she quit the karaoke video business.
"If he [Svay Sitha] agreed to leave me when I suggested, this case wouldn't have
happened. I would have a good future," she said.
A day before the acid attack, family members said Svay Sitha told Tat Marina to prepare to
move how to Battambang.
It is unclear how much danger Tat Marina knew she was in on the day of the attack. "I
only knew that Svay Sitha had asked me to go to Battambang," she said.
That afternoon, she went out shopping for a cellular phone for her parents so she could
keep in contact with her family from Battambang. Her sister and her 3-year-old niece
Her brother-in-law stayed behind in the apartment Svay Sitha rented for Tat Marina,
according to family members.
While the three were gone, two women and a man came to the outside gate, looking for Tat
Marina. Other men were seen waiting in cars outside. After the three had let a neighbor
told the brother-in-law that one of the women was Svay Sitha's wife.
Family members said the brother-in-law tried repeatedly to reach Tat Marina on her mobile
telephone, but couldn't get through. He also called Svay Sitha, who immediately warned him
that his wife was looking for Tat Marina.
About that time, Tat Marina was returning from her shopping trip. Her niece said she was
hungry, so Tat Marina's sister dropped the two off at a street vendor. Tat Marina ordered
rice soup and sat down with her niece.
Tat Marina's sister, meanwhile, drove the motorcycle back to the apartment. When she
arrived, family members said, her husband told her about the possible danger Tat Marina
was in. Within minutes, the two set off for the market on foot.
But it would be too late.
Just minutes before, Tat Marina remembers a lady coming up behind her, yanking her down
onto the street by her hair and kicking her in her thighs with high heels. She recalls
being surrounded by "five or six men," with at least one of them kneeing her
repeatedly in her chest until she passed out.
According to witness accounts provided to family members, Tat Marina was lying face down,
as two men went to a car parked nearby and brought back a container of nitric acid. A
woman--identified by police as Svay Sitha's wife--began pouring the acid over the back of
Tat Marina's head.
Family members estimate about 3 liters were poured over Tat Marina from a 5-liter
container. A police investigator said the container held only 2 liters.
Tat Marina said she recalls waking up, feeling very hot and starting to shout and scream.
"I'm very hurt, I'm very hurt," she recalled screaming. "But no one knew
how to help. They were just standing there."
Tat Marina said she ran toward a nearby house, initially pursued by the woman suspect.
People in the house, she said, tried to wash the acid off her body with water
Tat Marina was lucky, witnesses and family members said, because she was face down
during the attack and she instinctively protected her eyes.
Still, today, two months after the attack her face is heavily damaged by acid that
dripped onto it.
During the chaos, Svay Sitha's wife spilled some of the acid on herself and at least one
of the bodyguards, according to witness accounts.
As the sister and brother-in-law walked toward the market, a woman was walking toward
them carrying their 3-year-old child. The woman had whisked the child to safety as the
attack started. Now, knowing that Tat Marina was in grave danger, the brother-in- started
running to the scene.
He arrived just in time to see a man taking off his acid-burned pants, and a woman, with
vapors rising from her dress, trying to get away in a car.
According to family members, the brother-in-law, a policeman with the Ministry of
Interior, pulled the woman suspect out of the car. But he let her go.
He later told family members that he did so because he needed to help Tat Marina first. He
also said that if he had arrested Khoun Sophal it would not have held up anyway because
she had power and money, family members quoted him as saying.
Victims describe third-degree burns as one of the most painful injuries a person can
endure. A third-degree burn means all of the skin layers have been damaged. Acid burns
especially are insidious, literally melting away the layers of skin.
As police arrived--about 15 minutes after the incident--family members were trying to rush
Tat Marina by motorbike to a private hospital.
The first hospital told the family it did not have the facilities to treat acid
and referred them to Kossamak Hospital, which has a burn unit. An ambulance took Tat
Marina to Kossamak, but she didn't arrive in the emergency room until more than an hour
after the incident.
It is unclear how much of that time Tat Marina was even conscious. Family members said her
body initially turned white, swelled, then her skin began to melt away and her body oozed.
"I should have died that day," Tat Marina recalled." I probably would have
died if I didn't think about my parents and my younger brother and sister."
It was touch-and-go for several days. Tat Marina initially went blind in one eye. She lost
almost all of her hair and her ears turned black She lost part of her hearing.
During a severe burn, the functions of the immune system are depressed. Infection is the
leading cause of death, so antibiotics must be taken.
Fluids and pain drugs also are important and eating enough food is a concern because burn
patients consume a huge number of calories while fighting off infection.
A critical part of the treatment is to cut away the tissue that has been burned so that
healthy tissue will not be affected.
Dr Eng Kim San, a doctor at Kossamak who treated Tat Marina, said he cut away tissue on
her back, chest and neck, but spared her ears on instructions from her family
"The acid damaged 43 percent of her body," he said in a recent interview.
"If it was 50 percent, she would have died."
Tat Marina said her neck and chest especially were in pain, the latter not only because of
the burns but of the beating, she said. "I coughed up blood sometimes or sometimes
blood came through my nose."
As healing takes place and the burn victim becomes stronger, grafts of healthy skin from
other parts of the body are used to cover the burned areas permanently. That process can
take months if not years to complete.
About two weeks ago, family members moved Tat Marina temporarily to a burn unit in a
hospital in Ho Chi Minh City where she could get skin grafts.
Tat Marina was taken by stretcher in an ambulance on potholed National Route 1. Along the
way, family members said, she cried out, bit her lip to mask her pain, and passed out
Tat Marina was taken to Cho Ray Hospital, which is run by the Ministry of Health in
Vietnam. It is a huge, sprawling complex that appears poorly equipped for the number of
patients it serves.
But Tat Marina did have a small--if dingy--air-conditioned private room with a bed, a sink
and a bathroom. Family members brought her food to eat and milk to drink.
There, a Vietnamese doctor quickly made the decision to cut away all of her external ear
tissue to prevent infection to other parts of her head.
During her stay in Vietnam, healthy skin from her leg and an upper arm was grafted onto
her neck and part of her face, including her right eyelid, in two separate operations.
The doctor told her that her face could be improved, but that she would have to go to a
place such as Japan or the US for reconstructive surgery for her ears. And they told her
that she would have to live with acid-burn scars over much of the rest of her body
"My body and face are now very ugly," Tat Marina said. "I cannot imagine
getting my beauty back."
Women's experts said it will be difficult for Tat Marina. They noted that society
generally scorns both the disfigured and those who have affairs with married men.
"In Cambodian society, the first wife is legal, the second wife is illegal," said Sam
Kaknitha, the senator.
"Some might say, Marina was a very young and popular girl--why did she take a man who
has a wife already?"
But Sam Kaknitha said others might view Tat Marina with mercy since she was a victim of an
acid attack. "Some may criticize the first wife as being very cruel."
Chea Vannath, president of the Center for Social Development said in her opinion Svay
Sitha, Khoun Sophal and Tat Marina are all guilty as well as all being victims.
She said Svay Sitha made the biggest mistake, for not taking responsibility for his
"As a family leader, he has to keep peace and honor for his wife and children,"
Tat Marina is wrong for entering the affair, Chea Vannath said, and the first wife is
wrong for the alleged brutal attack The attack should be treated as a criminal case, Chea
Since the accident, Svay Sitha has taken responsibility, family members say, supervising
Tat Marina's case, paying for a her medical expenses and calling and visiting her
frequently. But they wonder how long he will stay by her side.
"I feel he has mercy," Tat Sequindo said of Svay Sitha. "But if she doesn't
get her beauty back in the future, he will disown her."
Tat Marina said she also has little hope for justice.
"We are so poor, we have no power," she said. "We have no money and even if we
complain to the court, we will lose."
That prospect makes Tat Sequindo angry. Through Tat Marina's case, he sees a government
that only works for the rich and powerful, not for poor victims such as Tat Marina.
"They don't care about [the Cambodian people]," he said. "They only care about
the government ... There should not be any mercy on [those involved].
"And if they are not prosecuted, it's not good for society. If they don't give a
lesson, people will do this again and again."
In fact, acid attacks--a trend for some time in Cambodia, have increased in frequency
since Tat Marina's case, according to hospital officials. Kossamak itself has seen eight
acid attack victims since mid-December, said Eng Kim San, compared with one or two every
Meanwhile, Tat Marina said that even now, two months after the attack, she wonders if
she should live or die.
"I don't think anybody can help me...now I feel very hopeless."
She said that she hurts inside when she thinks that from now on she won't be able to help
her parents, who are getting old.
She said she yearns for the sound of her brother to call to her again, "Sister,
sister, I need money to go to school."
(Additional reporting by Van Roeun)