"When they called for me, I had no idea it was for my wedding; I thought it was just another meeting. So when I went to join the meeting, I came from the field, and I was carrying my hoe and wearing my old clothes…. They told the men to stand in one row and the women in another. There was no choosing; they assigned."
In testimony gathered by Theresa de Langis as part of the Cambodian Women's Oral History Project, Prak Sinan, 59, speaks out about her experience being forced to marry a complete stranger. She was part of a group already blacklisted by the regime; she did what she was told to avoid death. Many of these women's stories are now on display at Tuol Sleng prison in the capital city of Phnom Penh; also known as S21, the building was used as a torture site and execution ground during Khmer Rouge rule.
The Khmer Rouge murdered nearly a quarter of the Cambodian population during its four-year reign of terror in the 70s, but not all scars were physical. Hundreds of thousands of men and women are believed to have been forced into arranged marriages by the state, their overlooked plight coming to prominence in 2014 during the ongoing UN-backed tribunal investigating the regime.
As with most despotic regimes, the Khmer Rouge didn't stop at murder. Their goal was to ensure utter compliance to the rule of the Angkar, the ruling body of the party. Complete strangers were coupled up, and the state encouraged mass rape. If the woman was afraid or did not want to have sex with her new husband, she could be tortured, shot, or imprisoned. The man could complain that he had been cheated out of consummation, or Khmer Rouge spies might report back to local leaders. Repercussions were swift—for many women, it was better to tolerate the forced sex that was required by the state than the alternative.
These crimes are being revealed as the tribunal, known as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, brings surviving Khmer Rouge leaders to account. Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea, the last living leaders of the regime, were jailed for life in 2014 after being convicted of crimes against humanity. In 2016, forced marriage was added to an expanding list of their alleged crimes, though survivors have yet to receive compensation.
In spite of his murderous brutality, Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot stated that his goal was to increase the Cambodian population from eight to 20 million within 15 years. Prosecutors estimate that the party forced hundreds of thousands of men and women into these marriages. This marked state disruption at a previously unseen level: Rather than the typical marriage arranged by parents, the state would assume the matchmaker role, weakening kinship bonds and ensuring greater obedience to the Angkar. Families were ripped apart, with young daughters being taken from remote provinces to marry men that they had never met.
"The survivors face financial and social issues, and they haven't recovered from their psychological trauma," says Hoy Vathana, a mental health counsellor at the Transcultural Psychosocial Organization (TPO), an NGO that provides psychological support for victims of the Khmer Rouge period. "Cambodian women are still suppressed and silent. A greater public awareness on psychological trauma and the need for psychological support needs to be increased."
Most Khmer Rouge marriages were conducted en masse. Up to 160 couples took part, sometimes at night, but all wearing the Khmer uniform of cropped hair, black shirts, and trousers. Some couples were only told moments before the ceremony was due to take place—of course, it was impossible to refuse. An anonymous case study from the Tuol Sleng exhibition remembers: "At our ceremony we had to say, 'I thank Angkar for being my parent and allowing me to have a partner and to take care of me like a biological child.'"
Those who refused matrimony would probably find themselves heading to Tuol Sleng, or a similar torture centre or killing field. After the ceremony, couples were forced to consummate the marriage, with party cadres checking their beds afterwards for evidence of sex. Those who refused would be reeducated, which almost certainly meant death.
We were together for four to five months and I never looked my husband straight in the face.
The women's stories are told in a quiet room on the third floor of Tuol Sleng, a former school that was turned into a torture site. It is now a museum about the regime, tucked away from the horror of rooms crammed with skulls and bloodspattered iron bedsteads. Case studies gathered by the TPO and the UN Trust Fund to End Violence Against Women line the walls. The blank eyes of women stare out from grey photographs.
The museum's curators have decorated the room with quotes from women. Some are anonymous; others use just their first name. One woman's words on a gray poster reads: "I didn't think committing suicide was the decent thing to do. We were together for four to five months and I never looked my husband straight in the face."
Men were also unwilling victims of these forced marriages, and couples lived in peril. Khmer Rouge spies were everywhere, and if a man and a woman refused to cooperate with their marriage, they were accused of being traitors. "My husband and I agreed to have sex to survive," one survivor's poster says, "even though we hadn't spoken and we were not getting along."
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Startlingly, many men and women married during this period are still together. There is shame in divorce in Southeast Asia, and perhaps nowhere more so than Cambodia, where the divorce rate remains at 2.3 percent. In the exhibition, one anonymous survivor says of her marriage: "We remember our tragic struggles and share sadness [together]. We cannot break up and we will stay together forever for our grandchildren so they do not have to face difficulty of living with divorced parents.
The solution to this ongoing problem, Hoy Vathana explains, lies in Cambodian women themselves. "Many women need to be empowered enough to speak up so that their voice, their needs, and their rights are heard. It is a long process to advocate for public acknowledgement [of the forced marriages] and in terms of compensation."
During the Khmer Rouge's brutal campaign, it wasn't unusual to see family members killed and maimed, and all the women documented by the Oral History Project mention the emotional suffering that was part of their forced marriage. "Forced marriage made [these women] terrified of men," note the authors of the project. "Some chose to leave their husbands and never marry again. Most women interviewed suffer from serious psychological illnesses."
The experiences of Hong Sopha form another case study of Khmer Rouge brutality in the museum. In 1977, she was assigned a husband. He quickly became abusive and he beat her. She tried to escape the marriage several times, but they remain married today. "If I asked to be forgiven from sex because I did not feel well or was exhausted, it did not matter," her poster reads. "He took what he wanted and hurt me if I begged."
For some women, the violence doesn't stop. Forty years after marriage, Hong Sopha is still abused. "Today he beats me more cruelly. I tried to sue for divorce and he stabbed me. He told me if I tried again he would kill me and then myself. What can I do?"
Today, experts are concerned by the impact of forced marriage on generation. According to TPO research, some women chose to divorce after the collapse of the Khmer Rouge in 1979. Others decided to live alone. Vathana says that children are then brought up by an "emotionally sick" mother who finds it difficult to take care of her children. She explains that women may treat their kids abusively, re-enacting the trauma suffered as a result of their forced marriage: "Children learn about a broken relationship model from their parents."
How can Cambodia help the survivors of forced marriage? "It is a long process to advocate for public acknowledgement and compensation," Vathana says. There is still stigma surrounding rape, abuse, and divorce in the country. Eradicate this, and Cambodians who suffered forced marriages will feel freer to report violence. There is, she says, still work to be done.