A Year Later, Acid Attack Goes Unpunished

Teen Karaoke Star Recovering in US

boston, Massachusetts, USA – A year ago today, singer Tat Ma­rina was doused with acid and nearly killed in a sex scandal that al­leged a government official’s jea­lous wife had chased down the teen-age karaoke star to steal her beauty.

No one has yet been tried—or even arrested—for the brutal assault, though police relied on eyewitness accounts to charge Khoun Sophal with the crime. Khoun Sophal was allegedly bent on revenge after learning that her husband, Svay Sitha, undersecretary of state for the Council of Ministers, was in love with Tat Marina, who was then 16.

The attack spawned a best-selling book in Cambodia and several stories in newspapers worldwide. A national US magazine plans to write about the case in an upcoming issue.

Two US senators have made inquiries into the criminal investigation of Tat Marina’s attackers. They have been told that the case is pending in the Cambodian courts. Cambodian police, meanwhile, maintain they are still searching for Khoun Sophal.

Svay Sitha has never publicly spoken about the attack.

The case has fueled criticisms, both within the country and abroad, that the Cambodian ruling elite acts with impunity, shielding one of their own after she was charged with pouring acid on Tat Marina.

At the center of the story, Tat Marina has a life today that veers from whimsical afternoons spent watching children’s television shows to long bouts of depression.

She has recovered her health and some of her looks thanks to a regimen of plastic surgery at a US hospital.

She lives with her American brother and frequently talks on the phone to her family in Phnom Penh. She also talks to Svay Sitha, the man she once regarded as her lover.

“Every day I see her I am so depressed. She’s been crying a lot lately,’’ said her brother, Tat Sequando. His sister still speaks to Svay Sitha because she believes no other man will ever want her, Tat Sequando said.

“She thinks that her future is destroyed and there is only one man for her,’’ he said.

She watches Sesame Street, a children’s television program, to learn English and sings karaoke to ease her anguish.

“Every time she looks at her old pictures she has been crying,’’

Tat Sequando said.

He often stays with his sister at the Boston hospital where she goes for cosmetic surgeries. Last month she was at the hospital for a new skin graft and additional surgery on her lower lip.

“She always has a good joke to tell. Even though she has been through terrible conditions she always has a good sense of humor,’’ said Tat Sequando. “She looks a lot better.’’

Recent months brought a dismaying series of phone calls from Khoun Sophal, who is suspected of organizing the attack.

Khoun Sophal taunted Tat Marina, Tat Sequando said, telling her she was ugly and that her husband, Svay Sitha, was no longer in love with her. Tat Marina received two or three of these calls, Tat Sequando said, and then the calls stopped. “It’s so sarcastic and it hurts a lot,’’ Tat Sequando said. “This person has no regret for what they have done.’’

Tat Marina, a budding actress and karaoke star, had drawn the attentions of Svay Sitha, a married man and cabinet under-secretary of state.

But Khoun Sophal learned of the affair and on Dec 5, 1999, with the help of several bodyguards, allegedly drenched Tat Marina with several liters of nitric acid in a daylight attack at Olympic Market.

Tat Marina barely survived and eventually fled to the US for medical treatment at a hospital for children in Boston. An arrest warrant was issued for Khoun Sophal, but she went into hiding. The attack haunts Tat Sequando, who fled Phnom Penh as a child and now makes a living as a nurse in Massachusetts.

He has fought for a criminal investigation of the people he holds responsible for the attack, successfully urging his family in Phnom Penh to file a criminal complaint against Khoun Sophal in Municipal Court. But he has watched with dismay over the past year as efforts to publicize the case in Cambodia have been met with threats.

A book published by his uncle called “Tat Marina’s Story’’ was a bestseller in Cambodia. Author Kong Bun Chhoeurn fled the country with his family after the book came out, citing threats to his life. He is now reportedly seeking asylum to live in the US. Appeals for help to two US senators have so far provided some assistance to Tat Marina’s family.

Tim O’Connor, a press aide for US Senator Edward Kennedy, said his office sent a letter to Cambodian Ambassador Roland Eng in Washington, DC, asking about Tat Marina. Roland Eng replied in July that the case is pending before Cambodian courts. The letter also said Sen Kennedy would be informed of any changes, O’Connor said. Kennedy has so far declined to make a public statement about the case, O’Connor said. The office of US Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts has also taken notice of Tat Marina’s story, posting a version of it from a newspaper on their Web site.

Tat Sequando may soon need financial help from American supporters as well. Although Tat Marina gets free medical treatment at the Shriner’s Children’s Hospital in Boston, she will have to pay her own medical bills when she turns 21. She is expected to get medical treatment well into her 20s, so Sequando may face thousands of dollars in bills.

Sam Rim, a spokesman for the Cambodian community in Fall River, Mass, said the Tat Marina case has become a problem for all of Cambodia. He read the story of the attack through Internet and newspaper accounts.

He says that he and other Cambodian-Americans now view the attack and the subsequent investigation as a measure of the impunity enjoyed by top government officials.

“Guys like me are really depressed because I want the government to do what is right to run the country. And when it comes to problems, we have a law that we need to exercise,’’ he said. “If we don’t decide to follow the law what is the justice? There is nothing.’’




Related Stories

Latest News

The Weekly DispatchA new weekly newsletter from The Cambodia Daily delivering news, analysis and opinion to your inbox. Published every Friday at 11:30am. Sign up today.