Star demands justice, but what about other women?

In a country with an alarming level of rape and assault, it took a popular personality with strong connections of her own to hold a tycoon to account

Sasa wasn’t meant to survive. The bodyguard of Cambodian tycoon Sok Bun, who had just viciously beaten her in a nightclub, put his gun to her head and pulled the trigger.

According to Sasa, the gun jammed. She was spared a bullet, but the stomping, kicking and beating continued.

“I could not [get up] because he grabbed my hair and he put my head down and he stepped on my head again and again. It was very painful. A waiter tried to help me, but [Sok Bun] did not stop,” Sasa, a well-known TV personality whose real name is Ek Socheata, said in an interview after the assault.

It had all started with a night out with a Japanese friend, she recounted. They went drinking with Sok Bun. Once her Japanese friend was intoxicated, Sok Bun and his bodyguard tried to drag her out of the nightclub and into their SUV.

Sasa stepped in. She said her friend was asking for help and feared being kidnapped and raped. Minutes later, Sasa’s body was covered in bruises, her right eye bruised and closed after Sok Bun stomped on her face. She was taken to a Bangkok hospital for treatment.

That was on July 2. Sasa then wanted to file a complaint with the police. She knew her assailant’s identity and had security video footage that showed the shocking incident. But police officials, she said, advised her against making a complaint.

After all, they allegedly said, he was an “excellency” who bears the Cambodian honorific “okhna”. Trying to bring him to justice would only get her into further trouble, she was told.

She was undeterred, but police made it clear they would not take action. So, about a week after the attack, Sasa posted the security video footage on social media. From there, it quickly went viral — and the public was outraged. Rights activists and experts shook their heads, expecting it would be yet another example of one of Cambodia’s wealthy, well-connected elite getting away with a heinous crime.

Sok Bun is among Cambodia’s best-connected tycoons. He was the president of the real estate industry body Cambodian Valuers and Estate Agents Association and the director of joint ventures with Singaporean company TEHO International. Among other projects, the TEHO joint venture is working on a US$500 million (about 17.4 billion baht) residential and hotel development project in Phnom Penh.

Shortly after the video was posted online — more than a week after police were informed of the attack — Sok Bun fled to Singapore. Public outrage skyrocketed. Newspapers juxtaposed photos of Sasa’s beaten face and Sok Bun posing in a slick suit.

With damning evidence like the surveillance video, police should have arrested Sok Bun immediately. But the public as well as experts suggested that Cambodian law enforcement once again was siding with the powerful.

But Sasa’s story had a twist. She is from a well-connected family herself. From her time as a TV host, she had also built a large fan base and following on social media.

“The video went viral, and the victim is the daughter of an okhna,” Mu Sochua, a prominent politician with the opposition CNRP party, told Spectrum.

And her father is not just any okhna: Uth Thy is the owner of a large construction company, and, more importantly, has connections with high-ranking military officers who are part of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s bodyguard unit.

After his daughter filed a complaint, he followed with one of his own. The case got rolling. In the following days, Interior Minister Sar Kheng spoke out. He accused his own police force of conspiring with Sok Bun. “I know the officials who are covering it up. It is not as if I don’t know that they have prevented [Sok Bun’s arrest],” he said.

His spokesman put it even more bluntly: Police had made sure that Sok Bun was able to escape to Singapore.

“You are winking with your left eye and punching with your right hand,” the spokesman said.

Sok Bun reacted like most wealthy Cambodians would — he offered a large sum of compensation to buy his freedom. This is common in Cambodia, whether it’s a criminal case, which must be prosecuted according to law, or a civil case.

He initially offered $40,000 to Sasa. She rejected it. With his back against the wall, he increased his offer to $100,000, an unusually large sum.

By comparison, drink-driving cases in which the so-called Khmer riche have killed a pedestrian or motorbike driver cost as little as $2,000 to escape prosecution.

But Sasa stood her ground. She wanted justice, she said, and couldn’t be bought.

As the public grew increasingly indignant over the failure of the police to act, Prime Minister Hun Sen eventually stepped in. Having ruled the country with an iron fist for more than 30 years, he called for Sok Bun’s arrest, told him he wouldn’t be able to hide and ordered him to return to Phnom Penh.

Sok Bun paid heed. Last Saturday he was arrested at the Phnom Penh airport after flying back from Singapore.

“This case is a good example of how Cambodian society usually works,” Chhan Sokunthea, the head of the women’s and children’s programme with rights group Adhoc, told Spectrum.

“For law enforcement, they do not take action unless the victim has a high standing in society. From the courts to the police, they had to take action after the prime minister pressured them,” she said, criticising the high level of impunity in the country.

“All of the cases where victims make a complaint should be investigated and the perpetrator should be charged.”

Yet most cases never get prosecuted, or even reported.

Tradition, Chhan Sokunthea said, still defines gender roles in Cambodia. While women are expected to stay at home and obey their husbands, men go out at night to drink.

“For Cambodian women, going out is very dangerous. Most women are not allowed to go out because of tradition, but also because their families know how dangerous it is. Violence, rape, kidnappings — all that still happens,” she said.

Politician Mu Sochua, who is a former minister of women’s affairs, agreed, and pointed to some of the public reaction to Sasa’s assault. Victim-shaming and victim-blaming is still common.

“I have seen many comments blaming the victim for being a ‘bad Khmer girl’ because a ‘good Khmer girl’ would never be hanging out at a nightclub at 1am,” Mu Sochua said.

“Some even dug up the background of the victim. Some said: ‘She deserves it.’ ”

But whether it be a nightclub or in their own homes, research shows that a shocking number of Cambodian women are not safe from abuse.

In its research, the Ministry of Women’s Affairs found that at least 40% of women had either experienced, or knew someone who had experienced, being hit, slapped, kicked or punched by their spouse. Being beaten and even tied up was familiar to about 20%.

A shocking 7% reported that they had been choked and burned, or knew of someone who had experienced such abuse.

In the aftermath of Sasa’s assault, the Japanese friend she had tried to protect decided to speak out as well. July 2 was not the first time she met Sok Bun. He had raped her in the past, she alleged, and filed a complaint.

That would make the tycoon part of the one in five Cambodian men aged between 18 and 49 who readily admitted to having raped a woman or girl, according to a UN study.

Of those roughly 500,000 men, hardly any were prosecuted, and more than half said they had first raped a woman or girl before they turned 20. While men in other countries in the region often cited alcohol as an excuse for rape, almost half of Cambodia’s perpetrators stated that they were driven by anger or an urge to punish their victims.

On top of that, 45% of Cambodian men believe they have the right to have sex with a woman, whether they are in a relationship or not.

“From day to day we try to empower women and ask them to make a complaint if their rights are violated. It’s very important. But the problem is that the law is corrupt and impunity is widespread. There are too many obstacles,” Chhan Sokunthea said.

In the first six months of this year, Adhoc received more than 70 cases of serious abuse — some leading to the death of the victim.

As one of the most prominent incidents of violence against women, Sasa’s case has led to some soul-searching. In a country where power, influence and money would typically save Sok Bun from prosecution, his advantages were cancelled out by Sasa’s own. 

Last week Sok Bun was charged with intentional violence with aggravating circumstances. He has stepped down from the Singaporean joint-venture project, given up his okhna title and resigned from the Cambodian Valuers and Estate Agents Association. He faces up to five years in prison.

But some are still wary. In general, cases that involve government officials or tycoons never make it to trial.

“I am relieved that he is detained at this point ... but I still remain cautious till he is put on trial,” Mu Sochua said.

The opposition and rights monitors, however, have said they will hold the government to its word. If Sok Bun escapes justice, the government would lose face.

“If he escapes, it will be an insult against us,” Interior Minister Sar Kheng said. “They would be insulting the prime minister and the police. We cannot accept that.” n

About the author

Writer: Denise Hruby