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Video of Tycoon Stomping on Woman's Head Reveals the Dark Side of Cambodia's Elites

The vicious assault of an actress by a property magnate in Cambodia earlier this month has shone a light on the culture of impunity and entitlement surrounding the country's ultra-rich.

by Charles Parkinson
Jul 23 2015, 9:55am

Ek Socheata en su tienda de ropa en Nom Pen. Imagen por Heng Sinith/AP

Cambodian television personality Ek Socheata obtained security camera footage showing tycoon Sok Bun dragging her to the floor, pinning her to the ground, and repeatedly punching, kicking and stamping on her head at an upscale Japanese restaurant in Phnom Penh. So she uploaded it to Facebook on July 7.

In the footage, filmed on July 2, a waiter can be seen attempting to intervene, while a man identified as Bun's bodyguard by Socheata waves a pistol at her head.

The videos quickly set social media in Cambodia alight and by the end of the day were dominating television news. The following morning Bun fled to Singapore.

Socheata says the July 2 onslaught was sparked by her attempts to prevent Bun and his bodyguard dragging her inebriated friend away with them. She claims Bun had beaten and sexually assaulted the friend on numerous previous occasions and that she'd gone that evening as a chaperone.

"He forced my Japanese friend to go with him [that evening] and she asked me to go with her because she really didn't like him," Socheata told VICE News. "Two weeks before the [July 2] attack she showed me injuries he had caused her."

Bun was finally captured and charged with intentional violence with aggravating circumstances on July 18 at Phnom Penh International Airport, after returning from Singapore once an arrest warrant had been issued and Interpol had become involved in the manhunt. But a man of his standing in Cambodia being brought to book is a rare exception — had his victim not been a well-known television personality who kicked up a fuss, the attack would likely have gone unnoticed.

While the agreement of Socheata's friend to go on dates with a man who allegedly brutalized her may draw questions from outside Cambodia, it is indicative of the culture of entitlement surrounding the elite here, where rich men can take what they want without worrying about repercussions, and women fear the consequences of refusing them.

Like many tycoons, at the time of the attack Bun carried the title of oknha — an honorific ostensibly bestowed upon those who have contributed to development in the country, but which requires a minimum contribution of $100,000 to the government. He has since given up the title as part of a desperate attempt to avoid jail time.

"If an oknha chooses you, you don't have any choice, you have to go with him. If you don't, bad things could happen to you," said Srey Sophal, a 25-year-old woman who was pursued by an influential businessman after he became a client of the advertising firm she worked for.

Gender violence remains 'one of the most widespread violations of human rights in the country'

"He'd say 'Why are you working under the hot sun, I can give you a house, a car, money if you come with me,'" she told VICE News. "But the price for all of those things is that they control your life."

According to Sophal, while he eventually relented because she was engaged to be married, her best friend was pursued much more intensely and began to fear for her safety when she realized she was being followed.

"She would arrive somewhere and he would call and ask what she was doing there," Sophal said. "Sometimes she told me she didn't want to go out at night because she didn't want to be followed."

Sophal said her friend still received regular calls from the oknha, who is a high-ranking civil servant. Neither of them considered approaching authorities about the harassment because oknhas are seen to be untouchable and both the police and judiciary are beset with corruption.

In the World Economic Forum's Global Competitiveness Report 2013-2014, Cambodia ranked 115 out of 148 nations for both "judicial independence" and "reliability of the police force," and 124 for "irregular payments and bribes."

According to Ny Chakrya, who heads the Human Rights Monitoring Section at NGO the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC), it is rare a member of the country's elite cannot escape a problem by throwing money at either the police or the judiciary.

"The police pressure the victim to receive civil compensation and withdraw the complaint," Chakrya told VICE News. "Then they say they haven't got any evidence to pursue the case with."

Related: Transported Like Pigs: Cambodia's Garment Makers Risk Death Just to Get to Work

The situation only becomes more complicated when the two people involved are members of the country's elite. According to Chakrya, a period of bargaining often ensues, and other powerbrokers mediate until a settlement is reached.

That appears to have been the case between Bun and Socheata, whose father is an oknha, with the actress telling the media in the days after the video was publicized that she had turned down an offer of $40,000 made by Bun prior to Phnom Penh Municipal Court issuing a summons on July 8 for him to appear.

Even then, despite the video providing compelling evidence of a serious crime, Bun was given two weeks to present himself and an arrest warrant was only issued on July 16, after the story drew global media attention and a further offer of $100,000 compensation had been turned down.

But regardless of the circumstances, the fact such a wealthy man is currently sitting behind bars awaiting trial is a rarity in Cambodia that rights activists hope can serve as a beacon to other victims of gender-based violence.

"It can be a great message and I hope that her case could be a model for other women," said Chhay Chhunly, a Project Coordinator at the Cambodian Center for Human Rights NGO.

'Most people would prefer to take compensation because they don't want to go to court'

According to Chhunly, many women in Cambodia remain cowed by social pressures and unwilling to come forward about their victimization at the hands of men.

"Most people would prefer to take compensation because they don't want to go to court," she told VICE News. "Compensation can promote impunity. We have a criminal code, we need to follow it."

That criminal code includes a Domestic Violence Law passed in 2005, while the government approved its 2nd National Action Plan to Prevent Violence Against Women in December 2014.

Yet implementation of the law is weak and many women remain unaware of their rights.

A study conducted in two of Cambodia's 25 provinces and published in 2014 by the Royal Holloway at the University of London found just 10 percent of women knew of their right to a life free from domestic violence, while only 32 percent knew about their right to equal justice and protection.

According to UN Women Cambodia's Ending Violence Against Women Program Specialist Inala Fathimath, gender violence remains "one of the most widespread violations of human rights in the country."

Fathimath says a lack of reliable historical data on the issue has hampered progress in addressing it, though a 2013 UN study looking the Asia-Pacific  region did get a snapshot of the problem in Cambodia — one fifth of Cambodian men surveyed said they had committed rape, while 34 percent said they had committed physical abuse, sexual abuse, or both against a woman in their lifetime.

Related: Video Emerges of Protesters Attacking Police in Cambodia

In an effort to fill the void, UN Women Cambodia is currently undertaking the country's first nationwide prevalence study of gender violence, expected to be completed by the end of 2015.

But it remains unclear if Bun will have been brought to justice by then, though the international attention the case has garnered does appear to have jolted the government into action.

Speaking to VICE News, government spokesman Phay Siphan insisted the country's judicial system was improving and justice would be done.

"No matter who you are, rich or powerful, you are still under the law," he said.

Whether or not those words will ring true, the world is watching and it has video evidence.

Huot Chanpav contributed to this report.