Wed, May 21, 2003 - Page 9 News List

Cambodians tire of blaming Khmer Rouge

Sexual violence is scarring Cambodia and people say they are weary of the excuse that Pol Pot's regime is to blame

By Ed Cropley  /  REUTERS , PHNOM PENH

After nine months working the streets of the Cambodian capital, Im Thea says she is used to being gang raped.

"It has happened to me so many times, I cannot count," the 21-year-old prostitute says matter-of-factly, standing on her patch under a flickering street lamp just yards from the impoverished Southeast Asian nation's Independence Monument.

A smear of cheap lipstick around her mouth and a face white with make-up give the mother-of-one a clown-like appearance.

But there is nothing comic in her solemn brown eyes -- no emotion, no hope, just resigned acceptance of a fate endured by scores of women at the very bottom of an increasingly brutal society.

The world's oldest profession is far from new in war-scarred Cambodia, but fuelled by a destructive mixture of poverty, desperation and a moral vacuum left by decades of conflict, many young Khmers are turning to sexual violence for their kicks.

Im Thea says that after negotiating with a single customer, she is often then set upon by a group.

"It is often with six to 10 men. They come out and then they have sex one by one. We have to be patient. If the men get unhappy, they beat us or take our belongings -- our money, our watch, our clothes, even our shoes," Im Thea says.

After the horror of the 1970s Khmer Rouge genocide, in which 1.7 million people are believed to have died, hope returned a decade ago with a huge UN reconstruction program.

Cambodia is now at peace and fairly stable, but in a salutary example to other countries being "rebuilt" by the international community, there appears to be something rotten in its society.

The economy may be slowly growing and the roads have fewer potholes, but evidence is emerging of an increasingly desperate dog-eat-dog world where the vulnerable, in particular women, count for little.

For the first time, some are even saying the usual explanation for all Cambodia's ills -- the legacy of Pol Pot's brutal ultra-Maoist regime -- is wearing thin.

"Blaming the Khmer Rouge must stop at some point," says Women's Affairs Minister Mu Sochua, who as a mother of three teenage girls has personal as well as professional concern about what she says is an alarming escalation of sexual violence.

"We deal with the victims of gang rape. How can I say to one of these victims, Sorry, but all this is caused by the Khmer Rouge?'"

Instead, she says, it is time Cambodians started to treat those less fortunate than themselves as human beings.

The government is aware of the increase in all types of violence against women, of which the gang rape of prostitutes is one of the latest and most extreme forms.

A new domestic violence bill has its final parliamentary hearing later this month to back up existing prostitution laws which do not prohibit a woman selling her body.

But reformers are battling deeply ingrained social attitudes in which sex workers are regarded as somehow subhuman, a perception highlighted in a recent study by Gender and Development in Cambodia, an aid organization.

Not only did nearly 60 percent of male students interviewed say they knew of friends who had been involved in gang-raping prostitutes, but only 13 percent of men and women saw it as morally wrong because the prostitute is not consenting.

The statement: "Gang rape is for fun. It does not hurt anybody because prostitutes see many men" was ticked by 12 percent of respondents. A similar proportion said gang rape of a prostitute was OK -- as long as the men all paid up at the end.

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