In an isolated house in Kandal province, acid victims from across the country gathered earlier this month for a two-day session of high-octane aerobics, singing and dancing.
The bi-monthly meeting, organized by the Cambodian Acid Survivors Charity (CASC), brought together about 45 survivors aged from 6 to 63, many of whom have been left severely disfigured by their lethal encounters with acid.
The aim of the meet is to bring acid survivors together in a context that allows them to express themselves freely and without the social stigma that is usually attached to their wounds.
“The first time I saw myself looking like this I thought ‘I have nothing left,’” said Kong Touch, who was doused with about five liters of acid in an attack that occurred two years ago in Kompong Cham province.
The 52-year-old mother of three lost her right eye and has been left with disfiguring scars on her face and body.
Ms. Touch was one of 16 known victims of an acid attack recorded by CASC in 2011. The perpetrator of the crime was sentenced to 10 years in prison in June 2012 under the recently adopted acid law.
Though the charity says the number of victims of this heinous crime has fallen considerably, possibly due to a law brought in last year that hands out tough penalties for perpetrators of acid crimes, poor enforcement of the sale and distribution of acid is still leading to accidents and incidents of self-inflicted harm.
Just last month, two people committed suicide by drinking strong acid and a 10-year-old girl was scarred for life after spilling a container of acid on herself while riding a motorbike in Kompong Cham province.
Following the introduction of the Acid Control Law, adopted in December 2011, the government finally approved a crucial sub-decree to regulate the sale, distribution and possession of strong acid on January 28. Six months later, it finally came into effect.
The sub-decree orders that only people aged 18 and over are able to purchase the substance and states that anyone transporting acid must have a license. It also requires that vendors ask buyers for identification and what they plan to use the acid for—in Cambodia, rubber farmers often purchase acid in order to accelerate the process of drying out resin from rubber trees.
“Acid is still a weapon. It’s still dangerous, even if it’s not a violent attack,” said Erin Bourgois, project manager at CASC. “It was July when it [the sub-decree] was supposed to be fully operational but was the sub-decree widely disseminated to vendors, did they realize this was even in effect? What sort of follow-up is there to make sure they’re asking for IDs?” she asked.
Though the number of attacks using acid appears to be falling—in 2010, CASC recorded 36 victims compared to just three recorded so far this year—the low cost and wide availability of acid has meant that almost anyone can get their hands on large quantities of the substance with ease.
Acid vendors in Phnom Penh last week said they were completely unaware of laws regulating the distribution and transportation of acid.
“Before they wrote the law [sub-decree], I heard about it but since then I’ve heard nothing,” said Rose Sohkara, 45, a vendor who continues to sell containers of strong acid from a shop house in Phnom Penh’s Chamkar Mon district.
Leng-thui Vibo, 30, another vendor selling acid nearby, also said he had gone to a meeting in 2010 to discuss new guidelines for the sale of acid but has heard nothing since.
Mr. Vibo said that while he imposes his own restrictions on acid sales, others are not so careful. “I’ve been doing it for a long time, some others do not,” he said referring to the practice of asking customers to provide identification when purchasing acid.
Teng Savong, secretary of state at the Ministry of Interior, who was on the committee to draft the law on acid, said the sub-decree regulating the sale of acid would soon be disseminated to the public, though he did not say how and when this would happen.
“We have other institutions who help to disseminate this law [sub-decree] but we have not yet disseminated this decree to the public,” he said.
For Ms. Bourgois, controlling the sale of acid is essential if the number of acid victims is to drop further.
“There’s a correlation between [the number of] attacks and the availability of acid,” she explained.