In Stung Meanchey’s cluster of squatter houses, sound carries easily through paper thin walls. And until June 14, 2001, the sounds of dogs barking and dinner ending were drowned out almost nightly by the arguments of Mov Vang and his wife Lin Kim.
Then Lin Kim would begin screaming.
“Usually my father would get drunk and hit my mother. Sometimes he would pull her hair and kick her,” said Vang Seam, 22, the couple’s first daughter.
“They fought almost every night. Once he hit her head on the base of the bridge and when she tried to get away he said if she told anyone he would kill her,” said one young garment worker, whose house is about 50 meters away from the Vangs’.
But on June 14, the fighting gave way to an eerie quiet, interrupted only by the police arriving to arrest Lin Kim for stabbing her husband to death in the neck. Mov Vang bled to death silently, unable to speak any last words due to the wound, said one neighbor.
That night the fighting had begun just like any other, according to the neighbors. Lin Kim’s retelling of it began with an argument she was having with her second daughter, Vang Sann, 18, about going out that night. After her daughter retorted that “no one is going to rape me,” Lin Kim slapped her.
At the sound of the conflict, Mov Vang emerged from the mosquito net, said Lin Kim, and told his daughter to “hit your mother for me.” The first daughter, Vang Seam, said Vang Sann then pushed her mother, who fell in front of the stove, and Mov Vang began to hit Lin Kim. After the beating subsided, Lin Kim said, she began peeling a mango for dinner, complaining meanwhile to her husband that “I’ve taken care of our daughter for so long without any problems, and now you tell her to hit me.”
“Why are you so hardheaded?” Mov Vang returned, and then began kicking her, said Lin Kim, so she started threatening him with the knife she had been using to peel the mango to defend herself, and wounded him fatally in the neck.
After the police arrived, Lin Kim was arrested and put into prison for 14 days. Her younger children were put into a shelter.
Lin Kim was granted preliminary release until her trial, after the Cambodian Women Crisis Center interfered on her behalf and talked to the judge, Kem Sophorn.
“I sympathize with Lin Kim,” said Kem Sophorn, and explained that he had decided to grant the release in “the spirit of the domestic violence law,” although the law itself is still being discussed by the Coucil of Ministers and has yet to reach the National Assembly.
Lin Kim insisted that she killed Mov Vang in self-defense. “If he hadn’t died, I would have,” she said.
There is precedent for such an occurrence. According to the human rights group Licadho, of the 41 domestic violence cases they have seen this year, two have resulted in the women being beaten to death.
Of the estimated 17 percent of Cambodian women that are victims of domestic abuse, Lin Kim is the second to kill her abusive husband this year, according to statistics from Licadho and Gender and Development for Cambodia.
And had she attempted to press charges against Mov Vang, it is unclear without a domestic violence law in place whether or not Mov Vang would have been prosecuted.
This is why, according to Myrna Feliciano, a legal expert, a domestic violence law is needed to criminalize “acts of violence” and provide a “broader spectrum of remedies and its effective implementation.”
Lin Kim said she tried to use the legal system to escape Mov Vang’s abuse six years earlier, when she had tried to divorce him. But six months later he moved back in, saying he wanted to see his children, she said. And as soon as he returned, the beatings resumed.
Some neighbors speculated that, much like the mob beatings of child molesters that take place every year in Cambodia, Lin Kim simply took justice into her own hands. “She just lost patience after being beaten every day,” said a neighbor. “I am a man, but I am not on her husband’s side in this matter.”
“I wanted her to kill him every time I saw her being beaten,” said a garment worker who lived near the Vangs’. “But after she killed him, I was scared that I’d had that thought.”
Other neighbors were less sympathetic. One woman who has lived in the neighborhood for twenty years explained that “One side doesn’t cause a conflict. [Lin Kim] was drunk all the time. If a girl is patient and good, her husband won’t hit her.”
A group of neighborhood men agreed. “If a woman doesn’t obey her husband it is okay to beat her. Mov Vang was a hard worker, responsible for feeding his family with his job transporting pork every day. The woman should go to jail for killing him,” they said.
Meanwhile, Mov Vang’s sister wants revenge. “Blood must pay for blood,” she says.
“He was a bad man,” another neighbor, Phin Ratta said. She says that Lin Kim used to hide under her house when she was avoiding Mov Vang’s rage. She said that Mov Vang’s own mother, a Buddhist nun, believes that he died because the gods were unhappy with his sins in this life.
Phin Ratta divorced her husband two years ago when they didn’t get along. “Most people just stay together though,” she says. She believes that Lin Kim shouldn’t go to jail because her children would have nowhere to go. Otherwise,” she said, “the law says murderers should be punished.
Ultimately, the court will decide Lin Kim’s fate. One neighbor, however, thought the Cambodian legal system relied on a method of justice much simpler than karma or neighbors weighing Lin Kim’s personal situation. “Ac cording to the law,” he said, “a murderer must be prosecuted even if they have ten kids. But if she has $2000 I think she might be set free.”