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Cambodia: A Glimpse Into One Uncivilized Action

by Lay Vicheka


“To be Cambodian is to be the warrior, the creator and the builder of Angkor Wat. More accurately, to be a Cambodian is to be a descendant of a people that produced architectural masterpieces of the Angkor era which rival the achievements of any of the ancient civilizations”.

Dr. Seanglim Bit.

Cambodia has been deemed as an “arsenal of political unrest” by domestic, regional and international perspectives. Nearly 100 years of French protectorate, American bombardments, Pol Pot regime followed by Vietnamese invasion, eternally sandwiched between the two more powerful neighbours, and internal conflicts between leaders, all contributed to tragedy of Cambodia over the recently past few decades.

A genuine Cambodia has just been emerged, following the result of United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) that organized general election of May 1993 (Senate, 2003, p. 2). A Constitutional Assembly was then inaugurated on 14 June 1993 under the highest Chairmanship of His Majesty King Rorodom Sihanouk (Senate, 2003, p. 2). But, does this mean Cambodia is now the island of peace? Domestic violence or family violence is now one of the most acute enemies to Cambodian development. During the Domestic Violence Awareness Day on 17 December 1996, domestic violence has been recognized a serious problem globally. Other barriers to Cambodia’s development have been well documented, and are beyond this short essay.

Resurgent Cambodia must now face with the resurgent challenge: domestic violence (family violence). What does domestic violence mean? Why does it prevail in Cambodian families? What are the repercussions? Would there be any measure to tackle? And if yes, what the measures should be? Who are eligible to get involve in the eradication process? Women are nearly always the aggregated victims of domestic violence, but there have also occurred cases that men are the sufferers of violence committed by their wives. To better understand Cambodia’s domestic violence is to view the agenda from the Cambodian insights.

What does it mean?

Violence is translated into Khmer (Cambodian) language as “Hoengsa”. Violence is defined as aggression, harassment, bad treatment or abuse (Dr. Sokhom, 1999, p. 7). Family is “Krousar” in Cambodian language. The term family is defined by Buddhist context as a group of family members including parents and children in Cambodian context, thus family violence (domestic violence) refers to any physical, emotional, sexual and economic aggressive and violent acts that a member of a family commits on another member with the aim to increase their power over the victims. It also refers to self-violation acts due to aggression from other family members (Dr. Sokhom, 1999, p. 8). In Cambodian language, the word “family” signifies both nuclear and extended family. Though other civilizations may embrace slightly different connotations for the term “family”.

So far violent acts in Cambodia include: cursing, insulting, battering with arms or legs, scattering acid, scratching with razors, hacking with big knives or axes, slitting throats, clubbing with wooden sticks, stabbing, shooting with guns, clubbing with metal sticks or chains, throwing dishes and sickle, burning with oil or petrol, chasing to hack, grenade attacks, poisoning, raping, manacling, typing to pillars, beating and tying upside down, striking the head against the floor tiles, selling one’s own children, threats, running away, strangling, pulling glass, pulling and pushing from the house. Whereas, suicide cases include swallowing various kinds of drugs and hanging (Dr. Sokhom, 1999, p. 9).

Domestic violence often occurs between two parties (husband and wife) or three parties (husband, first wife, and step-wife) and between other members in the family and self-violence (suicide) (Dr. Sokhom, 1999, p. 44).

69 percent of teenagers considered physical abuse, domestic violence. 21 percent regarded threatening and bullying, 12 percent thought mental exploitation, and 8 percent classified destroying the home’s property, as domestic violence-1.

Why existence?

Probably no country in this world that changed the forms of governance too fast likes Cambodia. With a protracted and unique history of its own, we can’t draw analysis of the roots of domestic violence to the past one thousand years. This would derail or protract the essay from its overall context. Thus recent history would be satisfactorily adequate.

Princess Sisowat Santa, member of the committee of social work and women’s affairs and health, stated that, “We can’t single-mindedly focus on violence, that won’t solve the problem, because Cambodia has experienced series of changes during the first general election, organized by UNTAC. This election has brought changes to political stances, society, so some cultural integration from all countries has confused us in the era that we haven’t yet been confident of ourselves. One more thing is, too rapid economic absorption that has brought difficulties in prevention. This economic absorption has negatively modernized the people, they don’t know what are theirs and what belongs to other countries, and so they always crave for more and more. These have brought conflicts, jealousies, …..… Before the 1993 election, our country was isolated, and after the election, we have become internationally recognized and became member of ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) and recently we became member of World Trade Organization (WTO). She also added that, Pol Pot regime destroyed the whole society; brothers and sisters, children, so we are new and weak to accept the new culture in today’s world. These evolutions are obstacles to all the people, especially to the women and children that they are the immediate targets of domestic violence”. Dr. Khlot Thida in her Basics of World Ethics claimed two points; one is that, after the war people always dramatically lose moralities, and second is that other fields can be fixed faster, but the fields of philosophy and knowledge are extremely convoluted to recover. In addition, In Cambodian Culture Since 1970, the authors proved that language does change in the course of a revolution, either by a process of evolution or by conscious reform, but it remains in some sense the same language (Ebihara, Mortland & Ledgerwood, 1994, p. 106).

The catastrophic events of 1970s have transformed Cambodia that once was a “gentle land of smiling people” into the arena for the most terrifying images and events produced anywhere during the second half of this century (Dr. Bit, 1991, p. xiii). During the courses of the war, millions of lives, especially the intellectuals were lost, displaced and migrated abroad, enormous cultural heritages were devastated, people’s mentalities have been gigantically traumatized; from gentle and loving compassionate to violent and impulsive. Most astoundingly, power has come to be understood, that it came from the barrel of the gun, which the leaders were determined to hold. Governments have never been “governments by discussion”, but “the governments by the law of the jungle”. This is the bad role model for the people and later generations.

After conducting an explanatory study examining the nature of domestic violence, a first report, entitled, “Plates in a Basket Will Rattle, Domestic Violence in Cambodia”, published by one non-governmental organization, named Project Against Domestic Violence (PADV). The study shows that domestic violence in Cambodia is very serious and that victims of violence between husbands and wives rarely seek help and get relief. Although most members of society are aware of religious morality and law, some still commit intentional injuries or offenses. Cursing, defaming or causing physical injury on other people are considered offenses. By contrast, domestic violence, husbands battering wives, wives battering husband, parents beating or cursing children are considered normal within family life in Cambodia, and the committers can go unpunished (Dr. Sokhom, 1999, p. 9). Portrayal of Domestic Violence in Cambodian Newspapers also reports that among the 183 cases, 90 cases mentioned interventions, 62 cases mentioned no interventions, and 31 cases were unclear. Furthermore, local authorities rarely intervenes that there was only one case among all the cases (Dr. Sokhom, 1999, p. 30). Interventions from police, neighbours, relatives, and communities’ authorities are thought as meddling into the internal affairs of the families. An opera, entitled, “The Returned Atmosphere (Chumnau Vilvign in Khmer)” by radio 102MHZ of the Women Media Centre of Cambodia, shows that victims sometimes condense the conventions, because they have mentalities that “every family generally has domestic violence and remind the metaphor of plates in a basket will rattle. Cultural impunity has dramatically amplified the numbers of domestic violence in Cambodia.

Much of Cambodian literature edifies Cambodian women to unconditionally tolerate with prevalent domestic violence committed by their husbands. In order to preserve the qualities of virtuous Khmerness, Cambodian women must not only know how to keep order in a household, how to cook delicious food, wash clothes, take care of babies and other household drudgeries, but also they have to wordlessly obey their husbands’ orders. In the story, “virtuous woman (Srey Kroup Leakkh in Khmer)”, activities of the virtuous Khmer woman are obviously showed. The virtuous woman (Srey Kroup Leakkh) in the story always wordlessly obey her husband, even to the point sacking out of the boat to reunite with another new man by her husband-2. Dr. Seanglim stated similar things that in Cambodian families the males (husbands) are always the heads of the families with well-established legal rights over family matters. Females are expected to be loyal and submit to their husbands’ authorities. There is almost no story that presents the female character as the revolutionary or visionary, that I think would be good role model for the Cambodian women. Due to unlimited authority of the husband, woman (wife) is sometimes regarded as comfort woman (a euphemism for sex slave) by her husband. These traditions even ensure the graver numbers of domestic violence.

Absence of domestic violation law is also one of the most effective ways to facilitate domestic violence. In Cambodia, any atrocious accomplishment that is not stated as “an offense” in the law is generally contemplated legal and morally acceptable. Most of the committers deem their violence towards their wives, children and other families’ member, not only legal but also morally acceptable. Though some people know that domestic violence is an offense, they still can commit that since, because know that they won’t be seriously punished. Descartes said that he compassionately loves the educated, but he fears that those educated don’t practise their knowledge.

Her Excellency, Keo Sovannroth, representative from Sam Ransy Party and Princess Sisowat Santa, member of the committee of social work and women’s affairs and health, concurrently asserted that lack of education and poverty do contribute to domestic violence. On the similar track, Dr. Seanglim wrote in his The Warrior Heritage, “It is the poor who have no voice, who have little understanding of the ego issues involved. They pay the cost of the failure with their blood and their suffering (Dr. Bit, 1991, p. xi). Her Excellency, Keo Sovannroth, proved that people would loss ethics, due to poverty. Most of the time in Cambodia, lack of education is inflicted on the poor or those living under the poverty-line. Poverty would negatively attack the mentalities of the people; hopelessness, emptiness, stress, impulsiveness, naivety, etc. These emotions would make those poor, low-educated people might view domestic violence one of the ways to tackle their predicaments. Women are locally and internationally given equal rights to men in every circumstance. Universal Declaration on Human Right, woman enjoy right to equal right (chapter 7), right to life and personal security (chapter 3), right to evade from torture (chapter 5), right to liberty (chapter 9), right to speech and self-expression (chapter 19), right to decent livelihood (chapter 25)…etc. But imagine! How could those women enjoy their rights, whilst they are uneducated and starving?

1- Reasons Given For Violence
Drunkenness 21
Quarrel 26
Adultery (husband) 12
Adultery (wife) 3
Jealousy 10
Anger 18
Debt 18
Mother’s orders 1
Disagreement 6
Gambling 3
Scolding 9
Battery 6
Others 31
Unknown reasons 17

Source: Dr. Hean Sokhom (1999). Portrayal of Domestic Violence in Cambodian Newspapers. JSRC Printing House, Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Annex A, Page 50. Examination of the newspapers collected by Project Against Domestic Violence (PAVD) in 1996-1997.

The impacts on children

Not only on children, domestic violence brings serious consequences to many groups of people, as well as to the process of social development. But for the scope of this essay, I pick up only one group of people, I think, are the gravest victims.

In Cambodian perspective, family is highly value, as said in Introduction to Sociology; family provides most of us with love and affection (Coser. L.A., Nock S. and other, 1987, p. 324). Dr. Bit, likewise, has similar sense; it is the family structure which supplies the basic social organization in society, and in rural areas is the economic unit as well. The bonds between family members are close-knit and involve lifelong rights and obligations. In contrast, negative psychological, emotional, health, and economic effects are also likely to be experienced by children living in an environment of domestic violence-3.

Originated with their innocent minds, they can’t they distinguish what is right and what is wrong. Psycho-clinically, children from the age of zero to the age of twelve or thirteen are the most receptive, so they would view their present families’ circumstances as the ways of lives. In the 183 newspaper articles of domestic violence, 79 cases were seen to have negative effects on children, while the other 104 cases did not mention any clear effects or consequences (Dr. Sokhom, 1999, p. 30). Domestic violence could make the children orphans, because of their parent’s divorces. Culturally in Cambodia, mother and father make up one solid pillar in the family to bring up the children, but imagine how could those orphans be talented bamboo shoots, if they are frail from the beginning. Plato said that the beginning is the most important part of the work. The orphaned children’s reputation is usually to be forever tainted (Dr. Sokhom, 1999, p. 31).


From an oasis of peace and prosperity in the war-torn Indochina of the 1960s to an island of bloodshed, Cambodia must need more efforts than other countries regionally and globally. Domestic violence is not seen as a rigorous barrier to Cambodia’s development, but insightful study over the issue, has shown that it does. To effectively tackle the problem, the government and other development agencies must thoroughly be conscious of the roots of domestic violence first.

Domestic violence has somehow been the instinctive behaviour of those uninformed people, and if there is no any measure, they still misunderstand it as families’ routine rows. Lee Kuan Yew said that sound value if rooted early in life could later resist contrary influences and pressures. Roman Catholic priests, if entrusted with a child for the first 12 years of his life, could usually ensure the child would remain Catholic for life. Ideology of gender balance and violence-hatred should be enrooted as earliest as possible to children’s life, so that liberalism is set in their mindset in their remaining lives. Dearth of education is also one of the contributions to domestic violence. It is extremely common for adult Khmer women to say that they were taken out of school because their parents feared that if they leaned to read and write they would write letter to boys (Ebihara, Mortland & Ledgerwood, 1994, p. 125). Such a barbaric notion should be totally eliminated. (Lanqueur and Bubin 1989). Not only about childhood education, poverty, adults’ dearth of education, forced marriages, nonexistence of domestic violence law and some other causes of domestic violence must be fixed as well to diminish the soaring numbers of domestic violence.

A Chinese Saying asserts, “The sparrow though small has all five organs”. A poor, uneducated woman, though underestimated, she has the desires, temptation, dignity and irreplaceable instinct like the others who are seen potential. The difference is just; the poor, uneducated woman has no opportunity to express herself.

“Abraham Lincoln said that our nation could not exist half-slave and half-free. We know that a peaceful world cannot long exist one-third rich and two-thirds hungry”.

Lanqueur and Bubin 1989.


· Ebihara, Mortland & Ledgerwood (1994). Cambodian Culture Since 1975. Cornell University Press.

· Five Year Strategic Plan of The Senate of The Kingdom of Cambodia (2003-2008).

· Dr. Hean Sokhom (1999). Portrayal of Domestic Violence in Cambodian Newspapers. JSRC Printing House, Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

1. See Popular Magazine, Year Nº11, Nº302, from 01 to 10 February 2005. Page 19.

2. To see the full story see: Ebihara, Mortland & Ledgerwood (1994). Cambodian Culture Since 1975. Cornell University Press. Page121.

3. Household Survey on Domestic Violence in Cambodia. Page 54.

· Dr. SEANGLIM BIT (1991). THE WARRIOR HERITAGE. 5210 Gordon Avenue, El Cerrito, California 94530, USA.

· Coser. L.A., Nock S. and other (1987). Introduction to Sociology. Columbia University.

· Jacqueline Desbarats (1995). Prolific Survivors; Population Changes in Cambodia 1975-1993.


The author is a second year student of law at the University of Phnom Penh.

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