The music filtered in from a neighboring village’s party on the night Mon Chinda was raped and killed. As the sun set on Feb 21, the 10-year-old girl was seen twirling to a cha-cha song as dust floated around her feet.
In the morning, villagers thought she was a child’s toy floating in a pond about 1 km from her home in Anglong Kong Thmei village in Phnom Penh’s Dangkao district.
Perhaps a man in the village watched her dancing that night. Perhaps he thought of those steps when he raped her. Perhaps he thought of the lively beat, fading out as the feet stopped kicking when he squeezed the breath from her throat. Perhaps he thought of those feet as he tied them together and dropped her in the murky water.
And perhaps it was those purple feet pulled from the pond that caused a male suspect to flee the village.
Now, like many rape cases throughout Cambodia, Mon Chinda’s remains unsolved. The only suspect in her case is on the loose—perhaps in Phnom Penh, villagers said.
At least four brutal rape-killing cases in the last two months have caused many to ask why they happen and why they often go unsolved.
Ellen Minotti, director of the NGO Social Services of Cambodia, said she can’t remember as many rape cases when she arrived in Cambodia 12 years ago. But when asked why, she responded like many experts in the field: “I don’t know.”
Chanthol Oung, director of Cambodian Women’s Crisis Center, said she is seeing more reported cases at her organization, but she also does not know why.
“Maybe the women know better about their rights, maybe they know where to go or maybe there are more rape cases,” she said.
Strangling the Stories
At about 8 am on Feb 22, Anglong Kong Thmei villager Pong Say was clearing garbage from a pond so he could fish when his hand caught something that felt like floating debris.
Wading further, he realized it was not a branch, but a leg. Clearing the garbage from around the body, he called to another villager, who was hacking small trees for firewood nearby.
The villager said that it couldn’t be a child. The tiny body resembled a doll. Pulling the girl from the pond, they lay her on the ground. Her jaw was shattered, her ankles were tied together with rope.
“Has someone lost a daughter?” he asked other villagers.
By this time, more people, who were clearing trees nearby, gathered around the body. A neighbor, Nuon Mom, 35, finally recognized the girl she had seen dancing on the road the night before.
Someone ran to tell the girl’s mother, Chan Sokha. Chan Sokha had frantically searched the town the night before when her daughter didn’t come home from a nearby shop after it had closed.
“I never thought I would find my daughter in that place,” she said. “I thought she might be kidnapped and sold as a prostitute.”
Villagers reported the case to local police. Some villagers began saying an NGO might come to inspect their village, Nuom Mom said.
Shortly after, the man police eventually accused of the killing left town.
Several reports by human rights NGOs Licadho, Adhoc and the Cambodian Women’s Crisis Center all point to the lack of reporting, impunity for criminals and a weak social morality as aggravators in Cambodia’s rape-killing problem.
A gang rape study reported that one in three people interviewed, ages 13 to 28, knew someone involved in the practice of prolonged gang rapes—most often on prostitutes. Although the study, carried out by NGO Gender and Development, did not assess rape-killings, only about 13 percent of the 580 people surveyed responded that rape against a prostitute is wrong.
No national survey assesses the incidence of rape in Cambodia compared to other countries, said Ung Vanna, who compiles crime data for the UN Inter-Agency Project on trafficking.
In Belgium and Malaysia, recent sprees of five or six rape-killings of girls drew allegations of negligence in prevention and investigation. In Belgium, thousands demonstrated against the killings. Malaysia’s rapes grabbed international headlines—as officials debated punishing criminals with a public flogging.
In Cambodia, the killings usually draw small stories in newspapers. In the last three years, the number of rape stories increased slightly in the Khmer-language Rasmei Kampuchea (Light of Cambodia) and Koh Santepheap (Island of Peace) newspapers before the UNIAP study’s funding was cut in September, Ung Vanna said.
Perhaps increasingly publicized violence toward progressively younger children has caused people to report cases more readily, said Katarina Hammaberg, legal adviser to the human rights NGO Adhoc.
“When you have babies being raped, that’s when you start reporting it,” she said, citing the rape of a 14-month-old girl in Pursat province in April.
An Old Story
Mon Chinda’s mother, Chan Sokha, paid attention to newspaper and radio rape reports only in passing—until her daughter became the subject of one of them.
“I never thought it would happen to my daughter,” she said. “I feel angry now, when I hear these cases happen to other children.”
Her daughter’s case is typical of what is reported in Cambodian newspapers.
She is a girl. Most rape victims are. She is a child; about 70 percent of the cases reported to Adhoc have involved children.
She also came from a poor village, a factor in many cases.
Anglong Kong Thmei is a dusty hamlet on a rural grid in Prey Sar commune. Villagers were relocated there in 2002 after a fire blazed through their slum near the Sam Rainsy Party headquarters in Chamkar Mon district’s Tonle Bassac commune.
Like most relocated villagers, Chan Sokha complains of the lack of work and the price of a motorbike ride to town—about $1.50—which usually negates a day’s wages.
Among those in her village, her family’s shack is one of the smallest. There is one bed and only a small table on which to prepare meals.
Mon Chinda’s father left Chan Sokha years ago for another woman. Chan Sokha supported the family, now two sons, 13 and 16, as a construction worker and rice harvester.
According to rights workers, something else makes Mon Chinda’s case typical: The suspect has not been caught.
Police vowed to find the suspect in Mon Chinda’s killing, but weeks later, no one has been found.
“The suspect escaped. However, I will try my best to arrest him because this was a cruel act,” Khea Sokhom, deputy commune police chief said at the time.
But Mon Chinda’s case is atypical in that it was reported to Licadho and police—which rights workers suspect happens in only a fraction of rape cases, according to an Adhoc report.
When rights workers or Minister of Women’s Affairs Mu Sochua get involved, the case is more likely to be solved, Adhoc Director Thun Saray said. Last year, a suspect was arrested in 157 of Adhoc’s 356 cases. Some 231 went to court. Ministry of Interior reports do not include the numbers of reports that end in an arrest.Chan Sokha said she has been to the police office several times seeking information. But all she knows now is a warrant has been issued for Soy Kimsean, a 26- or 27-year-old neighbor.
“I always pray to Buddha to reach out and arrest the criminal, because I feel pity for my daughter,” she said.
‘Trust No One’
In a recent interview, Mu Sochua urged people to guard their children.
“Our children are facing much more danger now. We cannot be sure they are OK,” she said. “The message we should put out to parents is to trust no one.”
A traditional Khmer proverb describes a woman as a piece of white cloth—once soiled, never cleaned, Mu Sochua said.
“The whole village feels pity,” she said. “It’s not a comforting kind of pity, it’s a demeaning kind. You will always be a member of the community without a voice.”
The Khmer Rouge regime left a legacy of violence in Cambodia, but that doesn’t give Cambodians an excuse to rape and kill each other, she said.
It doesn’t mean government officials can shirk responsibility either, she said, upon return from a recent visit to Kompong Speu province to investigate another rape-killing in which a suspect has not been found.
“Rapists are not just satisfied with sexual assault,” said Mu Sochua, appalled after visiting the family of a 17-year-old girl killed in February. “The victim, from the description, was severely, severely disfigured.”
The family found the girl’s body hidden beneath palm branches in a small dip in a rice field, her jaw and cheekbones were smashed and her clothing was torn until she was almost naked, Mu Sochua said.
Despite their promises, police often do not find suspects in these cases, she said.
“When the Women’s Ministry does interviews, we have a better chance of catching a suspect,” Mu Sochua said.
But Cambodian social mores often deter people from reporting sexual attacks, said Yan Sam, deputy police chief of Kompong Thom province’s Stung Sen district. Most of the victims’ families feel embarrassed to report their daughters’ rape to police because they are scared villagers would criticize their families and no men will marry a girl who lost her virginity,” Yan Sam said.
Even if they brave the embarrassment, many people—especially young people—distrust police. According to the Gender and Development gang rape report, 60 percent of young people do not trust police to act fairly, and 53 percent said the same about courts.
Dare To Report
The work of government officials and NGOs has allowed more people to “dare to report rape cases to the police” than in the past, Yan Sam said.
Three main NGOs collecting rape data have expanded their operations in the past few years—Licadho to 12 provinces and Cambodian Women’s Crisis Center to three locations.
Adhoc, which operates in every province, reported 356 cases last year—up from 297 in 2002. But Thun Saray cautioned those were only cases reported to its offices and should not be considered a national picture of rape.
Government figures don’t capture the full picture either, Thun Saray said. The Ministry of the Interior reported 343 cases of rape last year—up from 279 in 2002.
Hun Sen’s human rights adviser, Om Yentieng, said he noticed that Vietnam does not seem to have as many rape cases.
A 2000 rape study in Thailand revealed 4,037 reported cases of rape and 16 cases of rape-murder in a population of 62 million, according to Adhoc. Again it is difficult to compare statistics because a larger Thai police force may be responsible for more reported cases, Adhoc said in its report.
Many Cambodian families agree to receive monetary compensation and settle the issue without the involvement of police or courts, Yan Sam said.
“I want all related ministries, especially government to take immediate action against criminals; otherwise, the number of rape cases will increase every year,” he said.
Still, when police act swiftly, suspects are caught, as in one case in Serei Sambath village, Kandal Stung district, Kandal province. Pho Phuon, 31, was arrested on Jan 18, the day after he was accused of raping and killing a 10-year-old girl, Vy Channy, and leaving her in a shallow pond about a kilometer from her family’s home.
Pho Phuon is still in police custody, his wife Kang Chantoeun said. But she said she cannot believe her husband would commit such a crime.
Pho Phuon told her that after a long weekend working as a guard and cook for a wedding, he had been sleeping in the cow pasture when he dreamed that a beautiful woman came along.
Then in his delirious state, he found himself in the middle of raping the woman. But this time, he looked at the victim and she was no longer a woman, but a little girl. He didn’t seem to remember killing her, said Kang Chantoeun, 24.
Kang Chantoeun, who has been married for six years, recounted her husband’s story at her home in Serei Sambath village, nursing one of her two young children. They will live with her sister as they await his trial.
About 500 meters from her house, the family of the victim also awaits the trial. Vy Channy—the second youngest of nine children and known for tutoring her cousin in their school lessons—was found strangled and bloated in the pond. She had been bringing the cows in from pasture the day she was raped, her father Vy Chim, 48, said.
“It is a good thing police arrested the criminal,” Vy Chim said. “If villagers find the criminal, they should cut off his penis and throw it away.”
Once in police custody, trials usually take one year to go to trial, said Naly Pilorge, director of human rights NGO Licadho.
Licadho reports prosecution in 58—about 32 percent—of the 179 cases reported to the NGO in 2002, but Pilorge cautions that the actual rate of prosecution in rape nationwide may not be that high.
Phnom Penh Municipal Court Judge Tan Senarong said that rapes passing through Phnom Penh courtrooms have hovered around 40 or 50 cases for the past four years. Since January, the court has seen 20 cases.
He said he believes the activities of NGOs and the development of the economic situation in Cambodia brings more people to his courtroom.
In the Next Life
But in Anglong Kong Thmei, Mon Chinda’s family and neighbors replay the night of her killing without vindication.
The girl, “a movie addict,” on most nights walked to a shop about 100 meters from her house, shopkeeper Vuth Srey Pich said. The 25-year-old shop keeper and mother of three would allow the girl to sit on the bed inside the tiny shop house. She often watched movies until 10 pm. But Vuth Srey Pich said she aired boxing that night. The girls in the village went to play outside and the men crowded in.
After about 8 pm, she no longer saw Mon Chinda. She did not see Soy Kimsean, the suspect, until about 9:30 that night. On fight nights, without fail, she would see him before 6 or 7 pm.
When he came in, he was disheveled and came to sit down in one of the chairs and watch the fight, she recalled. When she asked him if he wanted coffee, he said no. Then she asked him to give up his chair for a paying customer. To which he retorted, “I’m waiting for my coffee.” Usually, a respectful customer, he used a food dish to flush water down the toilet that night, she said.
She said all of this caused her to believe the police had fingered the right man.
Police said Mon Chinda was lured to the suspect’s house when he asked her to fetch cigarettes for him. It was not unusual, customers often ask the girls to fetch things or buy them something in exchange for small tips, Vuth Srey Pich said. Nothing like a rape-killing had ever happened before in the village, she said.
Like 99 percent of rape cases reported to Adhoc, Mon Chinda knew the suspect.
“He was always very kind to her,” Vuth Srey Pich said, “like an uncle.”
But everyone in town knew he had a violent side, she said.
“I used to hear the man and his wife fighting loudly,” she said. “And I saw him use violence toward her.”
Soy Kimsean’s mother lives about 120 meters from the shop. The marriage—his second—was tumultuous, his mother, Im Sambath recalled. The wife would often run to Im Sambath’s house when arguments became wild.
His wife left a few days before the girl was raped, to tend to her sick mother in Prey Veng province, Im Sambath said. But Vuth Srey Pich said the wife packed most of her belongings.
Neither Soy Kimsean nor his wife have returned. Some of the villagers said they have heard rumors that he died while in Phnom Penh, Im Sambath said.
“If my son died, I would not go to his funeral,” she said. “I wish in my next life I would not have such a son.”