PHNOM PENH, Cambodia – Cambodia's prime minister added his voice Thursday to growing outrage over a drunken tycoon who was captured on video viciously attacking a female TV star, calling the man's actions intolerable and warning that his riches will not help him escape justice.
What started earlier this month as the latest social media frenzy has turned into a national scandal that has raised big questions in the Southeast Asian country, where the wealthy often act with impunity and are widely known to pay for their crimes with cash rather than prosecution.
Prime Minister Hun Sen implicitly acknowledged the judicial system's shortcomings and vowed that this time justice will be served.
"Don't think that because you have money you can escape," Hun Sen said in comments directed at property tycoon Sok Bun, who is believed to have fled the country. "What you have done is intolerable."
He ordered Sok Bun to come out of hiding and report to authorities. He said an arrest warrant has been issued, a manhunt launched and if Sok Bun turns himself in he can avoid being handcuffed like a common criminal.
In a grainy black-and-white video, Sok Bun is seen dragging the well-known Cambodian actress known as Sasa off a couch at a Japanese restaurant in Phnom Penh. He throws her to the ground, kicks her head and when she tries to get up he punches, kicks her and stomps on her in a beating that lasts about a minute. His bodyguard points a pistol at the actress' head as his boss attacks her, until a worker at the apparently empty restaurant manages to pull him away.
The attack, which occurred in the early hours of July 2, was captured by the restaurant's security cameras.
The actress and TV personality, whose real name is Ek Socheata, obtained the video from the restaurant, posted it last week on her Facebook page, and it quickly lit up social media in the country before becoming the focus of mainstream media and morning talk shows.
"He pulled my hair and smashed my head against the floor," Sasa told The Associated Press. "I was in shock, I couldn't believe what was happening." Photographs which ran in Cambodian media show her with bruises over her body, a black eye and bloodied fingers and knees.
Sasa says she was protecting a friend from the drunken advances of Sok Bun. The security cameras captured the exchange from two angles, showing Sasa stepping in to stop Sok Bun, who is middle-aged and married, from pulling a visibly intoxicated woman off a couch across from Sasa. As the discussion turns heated, Sasa throws her mobile phone toward the tycoon, which sends him into a violent rage.
Sok Bun issued a pair of statements Tuesday to plead for mercy from his victim, society and Hun Sen.
"I wish to publicly apologize for my mistake," he said. To show his remorse, he resigned as president of the Cambodian Valuers and Estate Agent's Association, a real estate industry body. And he gave up an honorary Cambodian title known as "Oknha," which is given in exchange for donations of more than $100,000 to the government. "Give me another chance to participate in society and in the nation, and to restore honor to my family."
He offered to pay Sasa $40,000, then upped the offer to $100,000, which she has rejected. He said he now is "absent from Cambodia" and seeking treatment for a stress-related illness, and would return once assured his safety could be guaranteed. Officials have said they think Sok Bun is in Singapore.
Sok Bun made no immediate response to Hun Sen's comments.
Human rights groups say the case has generated an important public conversation about the elite's sense of entitlement and about violence against women.
"Sasa is proving to be courageous and acting as a good role model for other women, by pursuing criminal sanctions and not accepting financial offers," said Naly Pilorge, head of the human rights group Licadho. She said it also sends a powerful message to "the rich and well-connected who believe they can do anything and are not accountable."
Hun Sen, the country's longtime authoritarian ruler, said he cringed as he watched the video.
"I can only imagine how shocked and afraid Sasa was when he grabbed her and threw her. She must have thought she would be killed," Hun Sen said.
He warned that any authorities who try to protect Sok Bun will also face arrest. "I could never have imagined the cruelty if I had not seen this video," he said.
Gecker contributed to this report from Bangkok.