Keo Savorn, 22, had no idea what awaited her two weeks ago as she left her Phnom Penh factory at lunch to buy sugar cane from vendors gathered outside.
There, in broad daylight, a man came up and doused her head in battery acid that also splashed seven other garment workers and food vendors standing nearby on the crowded street in Dangkao district.
Ms Savorn recognized the attacker before he fled in the chaos as the chemicals began to consume the skin on her face, neck, shoulders and back.
“I first felt hot burning on my face. The man put acid in a water bottle and threw it on me,” Ms Savorn said, lying in pain in a hospital bed and unable to open her eyes on Aug 19, the next day.
Ms Savorn said she could identify the perpetrator as a co-worker and give his age, height and skin tone.
“We worked together at the factory but never argued.”
Yet eleven days later, San Pet, chief of police in Kakab commune, said yesterday police were still searching for the attacker but he declined to discuss details of the case. Mr Pet said last week that police had no leads in their investigation.
Data received Thursday indicate that there have been 16 acid attacks across the country resulting in 28 injuries since the beginning of the year.
But, despite rising awareness within the news media and the government to the violence and trauma resulting from acid attacks, police, government and NGO officials appear in the dark over incidents of the crime this year.
Police and government officials are unclear as to how many arrests have been made in response to those attacks, and the main NGO dealing with the victims of the crime does not know the full extent of attacks that have occurred.
Police contacted last week said no suspects had been arrested in ten attacks reported by The Daily this year.
Lieutenant General Khieu Sopheak, spokesman for the Interior Ministry, said that police considered acid attacks among the most serious crimes and that they did arrest perpetrators.
“There is no impunity in my country…. All the [accusations from] people who say that we do not care about acid attacks are not true,” Lt Gen Sopheak said.
Although investigations may meet success, sometimes suspects run away quickly or there is not enough evidence to make arrests, Lt Gen Sopheak said. Victims may be scared or unwilling to give evidence to police, and acid is easily disguised in drink containers when used as a weapon, he said.
Most recently, unidentified motorcycle riders escaped after dousing one man and splashing another with acid in Russei Keo district on Aug 21. This year, the capital has seen three other attacks on motorcycle riders–three siblings, a 30-year-old woman and a pair in their mid-twenties–and another on a man walking by the side of the road.
In Phnom Penh a woman was doused in January at her house, and a jealous girlfriend allegedly poured acid on her sleeping husband. The same month in Kompong Cham province a woman reportedly threw acid on her husband, followed in February by an attack in which a man allegedly splashed acid on his wife.
No arrests have been made in these cases, district and commune police contacted last week said.
Municipal police chief Touch Naruth said he could not recall the number of acid attack cases in 2010. Kompong Cham provincial police chief Nuon Samin said yesterday that police have made no arrests in acid attack cases this year.
Previously, the Cambodian Acid Survivors Charity had said 21 acid attacks had resulted in 30 injuries this year. However, on Thursday project coordinator Ziad Samman provided record of only 16 attacks and 28 injuries, saying that the higher figure had included accidents involving acid, people injured in December, and burns that turned out to be caused by other substances.
“It is difficult to get reliable information, which is the nature of the beast,” Mr Samman said.
National police spokesperson Kirth Chantharith said he did not have figures on acid attacks. When asked why police had failed to arrest acid attackers, Mr Chantharith said perpetrators had planned their escapes very effectively.
“If they commit the crime near the police we would be able to arrest them immediately…. Police have never ignored this crime.”
SRP lawmaker Mu Sochua, who in 2002 attempted to introduce draft legislation to punish acid attackers, said there was no strong message from the top leadership and society that acid attacks are unacceptable. She said a culture of impunity and violence did not deter people from using acid as a weapon.
“If I want to use acid, what is there to stop me? No one is going to catch me and to get out of jail I can pay,” she said.
Nevertheless advocates said the police and government were focusing more on the issue as signaled by the draft acid law, which includes life sentences for the worst offenders and regulation of the sale of acid. Currently acid violence is prosecuted as ordinary assault or attempted murder.
Takeo Provincial Court in May sentenced a 21-year-old woman to four years for an attack in December on four karaoke parlor staffers using acid. In December, two cousins and a third suspect were also arrested for allegedly attacking a participant in a televised beauty pageant.
Last year, convictions also occurred a high-profile case. The Court of Appeal in November overturned the acquittal of fugitive former military police deputy chief of staff Chea Ratha, finding her guilty of an acid attack on the aunt of her former lover. Ms Ratha, who remains at large, and five of her accomplices were given prison sentences of between 15 and 18 years each.
Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said that police seemed to be paying more attention to the attacks and that the new acid law being drafted will hopefully increase the understanding of acid violence among police, Mr Virak said.
“Often it is seen as a private affair, but it is not,” he said. “We need to open up their eyes to this crime.”