Adviser linked to infamous acid attack named to national image panel

Cambodian official’s wife was implicated in a 1999 attack that left a teen karaoke actress disfigured.
By RFA Khmer
2023.10.19
Adviser linked to infamous acid attack named to national image panel Svay Sitha was named chairman of the National Committee for Coordinating Information and Public Opinion.
Credit: Heng Sinith/AP file photo

A top government adviser whose wife has long been suspected in an infamous acid attack on his teenage lover will oversee a committee that will promote positive news coverage of Prime Minister Hun Manet’s government.

Svay Sitha was named chairman of the National Committee for Coordinating Information and Public Opinion on Oct. 12. 

The committee will work to “build a positive image and enhance Cambodia’s prestige both domestically and internationally” and will seek to quickly respond to “false information,” according to the government sub decree. 

Svay Sitha’s wife Khun Sophal and two bodyguards have long been suspected in an 1999 acid attack on 16-year-old Tat Marina at a public market in Phnom Penh. 

The attack left the karaoke video actress permanently disfigured. A 2019 Human Rights Watch report called it “perhaps the most infamous case of acid violence in Cambodia.” 

An investigating judge issued a warrant for wife’s arrest, but she was never apprehended.

Tat Marina, who now lives in the United States, has said that she felt coerced into a relationship with Svay Sitha, who was in his 40s at the time of the attack. As undersecretary of state at the powerful Council of Ministers, he was a top adviser to then-Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Exiled opposition leader Mu Sochua, who was Cambodia’s minister of women’s and veterans’ affairs at the time, remembered on X, formerly known as Twitter, that Svay Sitha’s wife was implicated in the “horrific attack” on Tat Marina. 

‘Impunity prevailed’

“No one was ever prosecuted for the attack – even though it happened in daylight in a crowded public market and assailants left behind identification – and Marina never received any compensation,” Human Rights Watch said in a 2019 report on acid attack victims in Cambodia.

“Impunity prevailed not only in Marina’s case, but for most of the survivors interviewed for this report,” the group said.

ENG_KHM_AcidAttackOfficial_10192023.2.jpg
The front pages of two Cambodian newspapers – the Rasmei Kampuchea [left] and the Koh Santhepeap – from Dec. 13 1999, show images of singer-actress Tat Marina, the victim of an acid attack. Credit: Philippe Lopez/AFP

Radio Free Asia wasn’t immediately able to reach Svay Sitha for comment on Thursday. 

Svay Sitha will only work to counter anything that portrays Hun Manet and his government in a negative light, said Um Sam An, a former opposition party member of parliament. 

The new committee will also have the effect of restricting freedom of expression, he said.

“Disgraced Svay Sitha will worsen Hun Manet’s image,” he told Radio Free Asia. “People will understand that criminals protect each other, even though his family committed criminal acts against his mistress, but they will promote and value him.”

Also, Cambodia already has a Ministry of Information that can monitor news coverage and counter misinformation, said Son Penh, executive director of the Phnom Penh-based Coalition for Partnership in Democratic Development.

The government should update its press law rather than creating another committee that costs money, he said.

Cambodia’s 1993 constitution guarantees press freedom. Several independent media outlets were forced to shut down prior to the 2018 general election. 

And in February – just five months before this year’s general election – the government closed Cambodia’s last remaining independent news outlet, Voice of Democracy.

Translated by Yun Samean. Edited by Matt Reed and Malcolm Foster.

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