A Public Flogging In Sihanoukville

It happened when I was drinking in a bar one night in Sihanoukville. Seats emptied and expats, tourists, and Khmer staff descended into the street, attracted by the primordial sound of someone or something in pain. There were screams and boozy shrieks all the time on that road. But this was different somehow. They were in a tone that made the hairs stand up on the backs of our necks, and brought a fearful animal instinct into each and everyone one of us.

A Cambodian boy in his late teens was being viciously beaten by his mother and father. His father was screaming at him and punching him in the face. His mother was whipping his bare legs with a length of knotted rope.

The boy was hysterical, but for some reason barely flinched from the pain, which only spurred his parents on to more vicious assaults. The father kept grabbing him by the neck, screaming hate-filled words into his face, and then delivering spiteful, well-aimed jabs at his mouth and nose.

The crowd watched in a horrified, confused, but oddly fascinated silence. The boy kept shouting back the same words as he was hit. I asked Alin, the Khmer manager of the bar I was in, what he was saying.

“I don’t know,” she said. “He’s crazy.” She listened again. “He say something like you my mother and father, I cannot fight you…”

The boy stood there shouting and sobbing, holding his arms as far behind his back as the blows would allow. His mother whipped his legs again, leaving more red marks across his thighs. Not to be outdone, her husband throttled the boy and then punched him a few times in the face and stomach in quick succession.

Suddenly a Swiss expat called Eric – who was flying home the next morning after running a restaurant for five years in Cambodia, and had been drinking since 11am – brushed past us.

“I can’t see this,” he said.

He strolled across the road and put himself in front of the boy to protect him. The mother backed off slightly, but the father lunged again. Eric held his arms out to push the man back, and then gently nudged him up the street, shouting at him to stop.

There was movement from the house, and their largest son – a fat, acne-ridden manboy who must have weighed 100kg – sprinted towards the pair. He yelled as he ran towards them. It was like a war cry – high-pitched and filled with hate and evil intent, and a furious urge to restore the family’s loss of face at not being able to inflict more punishment on his younger brother.

He turned slightly, and I could see he was gripping a wooden truncheon, almost the width of a rolling pin. With the boy’s weight behind it, it was heavy enough to cave in a man’s skull and leave brain and foam on the gravel.

The crowd gasped in shock and utter horror at what they feared was about to happen. Well-thumbed phrases about time stopping still and slow motion replays don’t really do justice to terrible, stomach-gripping moments like that. The boy was now just a few yards from the back of Eric’s skull. It would be a horrible, cowardly blow. He raised the club and then stopped suddenly at the last second. The Belgian owner from the bar next door stepped forward, his hands clenched together as if praying.

“Eric, don’t get involved,” he pleaded. “This is Khmer…”

The father and son returned to the boy, who was still being whipped by his mother. Seeing them coming, he made a break for it and was chased into the house by his parents who looked hell-bent on inflicting further injury, but this time without prying eyes. The street fell silent, and the crowds eventually wandered back to their chairs to discuss what they’d seen.

“Only in Cambodia,” one retired English tutor was muttering.

Only the Khmer staff seemed unruffled by it. Alin said he was beaten in the street as a public humiliation so that everyone could see his punishment and to let people know his family had taken action over his undisclosed crimes.

But whatever he’d done, it was a dreadful thing to witness. I felt a sickness in my stomach, and a hollow feeling descended as I thought again about how violent human beings can be to each other. I’ll never know what the boy had done to deserve such punishment, and his family refused to discuss it, but his terror as he was being whipped and beaten by his own flesh and blood was awful to see.

Eric sat down at his bar stool, looking shocked and agitated, and slightly annoyed that no-one else had helped him. I don’t think he had any real notion how near he’d come to never leaving Cambodia.

The strength with which the son gripped that club a second before contact, and the madness in his eyes as he sought to restore the family honour, made me realise how easily Eric could have been killed, and the further bloodshed it would have sparked.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of physical punishment, let alone public punishment, there was something vile in the bullying savagery they inflicted on that boy, and the sheer terror they put in his heart. But for some reason it felt less terrible than the violence that so nearly came from stopping it.

Alex Watts

Alex writes the excellent Chef Sandwich blog and is on Twitter. He is also author of the best-selling food book ‘Down and Out In Padstow and London’ available via Amazon, Foyles and Waterstones.

14 thoughts on “A Public Flogging In Sihanoukville

  1. Jay Reply

    As despicable as this is to us Westerners one must remember that this is not the U. S. or Europe. Morals, values, and perception of punishment are quite different in SE Asia, with Cambodia having its own unique set.One famous French-German journalist who covered SE Asia (the Vietnam War era too) and the Arab world once said, ‘We must stop imposing our values on other cultures as this will only create a backlash and entrench fundamentalists.’ He said that some 40 years ago and it is still valid today as we can see in the Arab world. Asians, although more adaptable, resent foreigners who think they know and can do better. The incident was gut-wrenching for Westerners but as you can see from the Khmer bystanders’ attitude they obviously didn’t think too much of it.

  2. mr. D Reply

    in that street on victory hill where the bars are, this incident could only have occurred involving the Khmer bar owners of a bar in the middle of the strip with the name ending in the letter ‘x’. these people reside in the three story building they built on the illegal land opposite that bar. the mother and military father have a known history of violence. the two sons, one of which is an unfriendly, rude overweight pusshead, never smiles, is aggressive and known to be violent. i was in their ground floor shop three years ago when the father pulled a gun on the mother at the front counter, like an armed hold up. he was obviously completely drunk, yelling at her, waving the weapon in the air. having been caught up in the incident while shopping for a bottle of vodka in the back of the shop, i quietly peeked through the dodgy old stock shelves, waited for the aggression to subside temporarily before approaching the front counter. they continued on after i made my swift departure, not waiting for my change of a ten dollar note for the eight dollar fifty purchase.

    • david writer Reply

      cambodia is a strange place my wife and i got set up in poipett by tourist police think his name was capt dean barged into our room 10pm with drunk goons planted pills on us total set with hotel owner were 59 year olds had to pay the basted 2000 aust dollar to get out’would love to see the low life worm back here in aust we will never go back there hope he gets his kama so please be carefull happened about 4 years ago very scary

  3. Aaron Reply

    Good point Jay that we mustn’t impose our values in another land. This has and continues to be the reason for so much conflict in the past and present. However, you state “as you can see from the Khmer bystanders’ attitude they obviously didn’t think too much of it.” Were you there ? I think Mr. Watts description of the crowd, which was surely a majority Khmai as being “horrified and confused” is more accurate.
    We have moved on as a human species. This type of behaviour is no better than flinging pooh on one’s nemeses. It is simply that the khmmai do not have free speech and the ability to voice their opinions as so much of the civilized planet does. If a drunken, bribe taking, inadequate, teacher says two plus two equals five, then the students accept this without question. However, it does not equal five, it equals four.
    Enough of the blanket protectionism of this majority unethical society. If you’re retired and want to come here to die and in the process enjoy the girls, cheap beer, and drugs, fine. But let’s all stop pretending. This is no more the kingdom of wonder than thailand is the land of smiles.

    • Jay Reply

      Horrified and confused they might have been but it still didn’t move them enough to intervene. They just moved on and forgot about it. I am saying this because of my long experience with Khmer people. They laugh at other misfortunes not because of schadenfreude but this is how they express their embarrassment, sometimes shock.

      We might have moved on but that’s a pretty Western attitude too. This is not to say those who haven’t yet shouldn’t but after all the so-called civilized world comprises only about one third of the world, and without prejudice, the Khmer people by and large haven’t reached that state of compassion and empathy. Why? I guess we all know that. Have we reached that?

      If you believe foreign influence can change Cambodia you are gravely mistaken. This change can only come from inside and with insight. I would think this will take another two generations. Nobody here serious enough will pretend, possibly with the exception of those old fat retirees with their skinny, skanky Khmer girlfriends. To some extent they also contribute to a prevalent feeling of impunity. Everybody gets away with (almost) everything.

      • Zack Reply

        I’m not arguing against your point Jay, but at what point does “letting things run their course” become “watching a kid get murdered on the street without doing anything about it”? Sometimes foreigner or local doesn’t matter as much as being a human being. I wasn’t there, and I won’t comment on this example.
        The “civilized world” sat back and did nothing as the Pol Pot regime slaughtered a quarter of Cambodia’s populace. Should we write that off as not our concern because we are foreign?
        I know a guy who came home one night, very drunk, and his wife was too slow to answer the door. According to Khmer culture, she should have woken up right away to serve her husband. Except she was dead asleep from tending to their six children while he was out on the piss. No excuse though, so he kicked her in the stomach until he felt satisfied, then passed out. In the morning she died of internal bleeding. The police came, but didn’t arrest him as there was no one else to take care of the kids. Is this okay for us to accept this because we are not from here?

        • Jay Reply

          You are right Zack. All I am saying is that all our outrage won’t help if a change of attitude in Khmer culture doesn’t come from within. 90% of all Khmer are completely uneducated or have very little education. Sorry, what do you expect from this kind of people? Stepping in as a foreigner will only increase their resentment of foreigners, which, thankfully, at least in my experience, is not very great in Cambodia to begin with. The answer lies in the overhaul of the educational system, and that’s where foreigners can help a lot.

  4. Rotunda Reply

    This incident is abuse and shouldn’t be brush this off as Khmer culture. Abuse occurs everywhere. When a woman is raped in America or Europe, people tend not to help mainly because they fear for their own welfare.

    The best thing to do in this situation is to record the incident on your smartphone and upload it to YouTube.

  5. ThePeck Reply

    I really don’t care, the imposed morals on a culture I can understand. And even violence like this “may” have it’s place in “their” culture. Morals are one thing but violence is not. I do agree with discipling but this attack sounds like it was bordering on permanently disabling this teen, serious injury and maybe death. Did he do something wrong? Evidently. Should he be punished? Yes. Should this punishment be met out by angry blinded with rage parents? No.

    I will except cultures and different views, that’s entirely prudent. But blind rage and violence, unless he killed someone or raped someone I don’t see the punishment matching the crime.

    Again from this view we only know half the story and in actuality probably less. So from the outside looking in I don’t agree with it and may have done something like Eric. But we only know a little bit of the story.

  6. Disgruntled Teacher Reply

    Good on those parents for instilling some old-fashioned discipline, on their own kin. It’s rare to see parents take responsibility for a child’s misdeeds.

    True, the parents may have gone a bit far in public. “Praise in public, correct in private”. But a military family it will be. Maybe the kid stole a motorbike, or lied to a girl and almost got her pregnant. Will his parents be liable? In Khmer law and tradition, maybe.

    Good on ’em! Responsibility is important.

    Public floggings were a necessary part of punishment in primitive societies (read: most parts of Cambodia). In this case, the PARENTS are the basic government of Cambodia (not the imam or the official or the soldier), and they have judged and sentenced their own son.

    Even Abraham was asked to put up his own son. He did, and god loved him for it. “No son of mine is going to …”

    The ugliness, yes, is deplorable. The extent, yes extreme. But sometimes…”Pow! Right in the kisser!”

  7. LongTimeTeacher Reply

    Respecting culture and tradition is important for us foreigners, but there are line, albeit fuzzy, that should not be crossed. The time-honored biblical “rod” is meant for backsides, not faces. That, DT, is “old-fashioned discipline,” not abuse. Do we roll over for acid burns and honor killings, too? Yes, it’s going to take a couple of generations for Cambodia, but they are headed in the right direction with education and religious freedom.

  8. Ben Heys Reply

    I can’t stand this sort of thing. I spend about half my time in Sihanoukville these days and I once got involved in a very similar situation. I did once witness a Khmer girl get her legs kicked out from under her and dragged up the beach by her hair.

    This was in front of the old Nap House, I immediately dropped my drink and rushed to tackle the Khmer guy in order to get him to let go of the girl.

    Once I had him in a headlock he kept yelling “who are you? I own this place, I can do what I want” I just told him it didn’t matter who I was and he could let go of the girl (he went to ground still clutching her hair”

    More yells from him demanding to know who I was and so I put pressure on the choke hold, he immediately let go of the girl then so I let him up.

    Once up he started throwing these pitiful little punches at me. I just backed away from him up toward the bar, hoping some backpackers would intervene as I didn’t want to hurt him, just stop him.

    But then I had a bottle broken over the back of my head and I was the one that got hurt….I still managed to take one of them down from the ground as he rushed in to kick me in the head (my 6 foot 3 frame had the advantage in leg length) and I quite satisfyingly folded him in half and dropped him with a kick to the guts/groin (not quite sure where it landed).

    But then there were five of them (counted by an outside source, I had no idea how many) just kicking into me, so I just curled up into a ball and tried to protect that parts that mattered for the 10 or 20 seconds (felt like minutes) it took for backpackers to actually break it up.

    I was probably the luckiest I have ever been that night….

    And by the way…if I see a situation like that again I’ll do something again….just nothing so stupid as taking him to the ground and then letting his mates come up behind me. Next time it’ll be a SMASH and run operation…and I won’t give two shits about hurting them.

    (I’ll also be out of town before the morning if it ever comes to that).

    But I’ll never stand and watch something like that…anyone who does should be ashamed of themselves.

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