kompong cham city – Last Tuesday night, after several years of sleeping rough on the streets and supporting herself by scavenging for scrap, 15-year-old Kuon Srey Neth was raped and murdered in a field just a stone’s throw from the Kompong Cham commune police station.
Her slight, pale, naked corpse was found among the weeds and litter. She had been strangled.
Srey Neth was the daughter of a fisherman who drowned when she was 12. Her mother left to work in Malaysia as a maid last year. Srey Neth’s mother, who is still in Malaysia, does not yet know that her daughter is dead.
Left with her uncle, a fisherman, and her aunt who sold his fish in Kompong Cham town, Srey Neth had suffered abuse at both their hands for being a “disobedient” and “stubborn” girl.
She ran away when she was about 13, preferring life on the streets to her uncle’s frequent beatings at home.
“We hit her since she was a small child, but it’s not a problem,” her uncle, Mr Bo Boin, said in an interview at his wooden stilt home on Thursday night.
“She never listened, that’s why she was raped,” he added.
Srey Neth’s aunt, Bou Sarein, spoke matter-of-factly about her niece’s death. She said police had informed her and her husband of the child’s death on Wednesday morning, but they had not gone to the police station to fetch her body, fearing they would be asked for money.
Kompong Cham commune chief Plork Sovann, who identified the young girl’s body, described Srey Neth as a pretty girl, but one who he believed was “mentally disabled.”
Mr Sovann said that when the deceased girl’s aunt and uncle were told of her murder, they declined to take the body, leaving it to the authorities to organize her cremation.
“The police told me her aunt didn’t care [about her] because she was disobedient,” Mr Sovann said.
There have been a series of rapes and murders in Kompong Cham and neighboring Prey Veng province this year.
In April, two children and a woman were raped and murdered in three separate incidents in Prey Veng; and in February, in a particularly brutal case, a woman’s body was found in Kompong Cham with a rope tied around her neck and burnt grass stuffed in her genitals.
Local rights group Adhoc recorded 501 rapes nationwide last year, including 33 rapes of children under 5 years old, but the figure was believed to be significantly higher due to under-reporting of the crime of rape in Cambodia.
Both politicians and police officials seem at a loss to explain the prevalence of rape and murder in Cambodia, particularly of children, repeatedly blaming alcohol consumption, recreational drugs and pornography for what has become an all-too-common phenomenon, particularly in rural areas.
Some women and children’s rights advocates, however, are rejecting this semi-official line on the country’s rape and murder problem, saying that it’s more likely the result of a culture of impunity and lack of political will to address this pressing issue.
David Harding, training coordinator at Friends International, an NGO that works with street youth, said that even the tacit inference that victims of sexual assault were somehow responsible for what happened to them was inaccurate and dangerous.
“To be honest, alcohol, drugs and porn are symptoms of problems in society. To say that they cause sexual violence is a huge oversimplification of the issue,” Mr Harding said.
“A 15-year-old is a child, and there should have been some responsibility taken to protect her.
“It seems remarkably cynical that someone can say a homeless child was ‘asking for it.’”
Kompong Cham commune police chief Khut Run said that Srey Neth had been known to be a difficult young girl, and that she had alienated herself from her relatives. “We asked her aunt to come fetch the body, but she refused because she said the girl had been very stubborn,” he said.
Kompong Cham Provincial Court charged Nguyen Van Phuc with the murder of Srey Neth on Thursday, Deputy Prosecutor Real Sophen said.
Interviewed at a Kampong Cham City police station, Van Phuc openly admitted to killing Srey Neth but denied that he had raped her. “She agreed to sleep with me. She said she loved me,” Van Phuc said through the bars of his small, dank cell, adding that he had bought her rice wine when they met.
Van Phuc said that Srey Neth started to scream: “She said, ‘Help me, help me’; I don’t know why. I was scared she’d file a complaint, so I killed her,” he said, in a matter-of-fact tone.
Asked if he felt remorse for killing the teenager, Van Phuc replied simply, “I don’t know.”