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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - 7 Questions with Mr. Doung Savorn

Gender violence Duong Savorn, 49: “Being a man or woman isn’t important – what is, is how we can support women.” Scott Howes
Gender violence Duong Savorn, 49: “Being a man or woman isn’t important – what is, is how we can support women.” SCOTT HOWES

7 Questions with Mr. Doung Savorn

Duong Savorn is project coordinator of the Gender Based Violence (GBV) at the Cambodian Defenders Project (CDP). In 2011 he authored the The Mystery of Sexual Violence under the Khmer Rouge Regime – the same year that the first Women’s Hearing was held to hear survivors’ testimony. Savorn was born in 1964, he has three children and lives in Phnom Penh. Rosa Ellen reports.

When did you become involved in the CDP?
I came to this project in 2009 to support gender-based violence victims under the Khmer Rouge, but this project started a bit late behind the ECCC – you see the court was going ahead already and we started to support GBV a bit late in 2009. [Our job is to] inform the civil parties in the trial and raise awareness about this topic – but it’s not so easy to talk about. It was late, but we couldn’t miss it. We had to go to the provinces and talk with survivors, then we went to universities, and appeared on the radio until we got more civil parties involved with us. Rape and gender-based violence was not admitted as a crime in the current Case 002. You can see we submitted 770 civil parties through our project but only forced marriage has been admitted as a crime, not other sexual violence like rape. I learned from the court that we cannot link these crimes to the top responsible people, because of [the Khmer Rouge regime’s prohibition of] “moral offence” – the policy set by the Khmer Rouge means they consider the regime didn’t allow perpetrators to [commit rape].

How did it feel to hear this, with what you have heard and learned from civil parties?
I feel that the policy that the Khmer Rouge set as a moral offence…it had no effect during their rule. Because the perpetrators committed sexual violence a lot, through our – yes, small – research. But we can see what happened. I feel that this was not fair. But it’s hard to link and prove that the top leaders implemented these policies. Before I felt a bit more optimistic, but now when the courts said this, I felt disappointed. Even forced marriage was a huge number, equalling one third of the admitted civil party, but it’s still pending and we don’t know what will happen.

Do you think that the absence of sexual violence from the list of charges against those on trial has any wider effect?
If this court doesn’t address these issues it is a kind of impunity to those crimes and also today. You can see sexual violence happens a lot today. If those crimes are not seriously considered by the court or by key sectors – the government, NGOs, maybe also a kind of influence of impunity about sexual violence [will continue] today as well. The reason we started the Women’s Hearing in 2011 was because we wanted to see advocacy. We wanted the court to look at that because we have limited resources and evidence to bring to the court. But personally I can see victims have no opportunity to address their case or to be heard at the court. We should open another space for them – if they want to speak. Us, society, government, should think about their suffering and how we can support them, what we can do.

Is there any data on sexual violence under the Khmer Rouge?
No data at all. Not even for forced marriage, but we learned [a figure] from UN Women [the agency tasked with advancing gender equality] but I’m not sure how they got this data. As for rapes…I can frankly say, when GBV victims were coming to fill the forms to take part in the court, I was not optimistic. But day by day, as we work with survivors more and more people came to talk to us, share with us, and then came to the women’s hearings. I feel there are more victims, but we don’t know how many.

It’s difficult to find the perpetrators. Killing, perpetrators admit to. But rapes?
We’ve learned this from the victims. We’ll say: ‘please if you want to tell us the name, or share the name, do.’ But they’re afraid that if they say who they’ll invite revenge, if the perpetrators are still alive.

You dedicated the book to your father? What was his story?
He was a former Lon Nol solider and was brought to be executed immediately because the Khmer Rouge considered him an enemy. He tried to escape from where he was kept, and run to meet me but he was arrested and disappeared. I was 11 or 12, an only child. I didn’t think I’d have any other opportunity to write [about] the Khmer Rouge, so that’s why I wanted to remember him. My mother was in a forced marriage. That’s why I am interested in this issue, too. After my father died my mother and I were split up. She lived in a women’s group and I lived with the children’s group. Sometimes after 10 days, we were allowed to see each other but my mother used her break time to run to see me, if the worksite was close to mine. She had to stay with her husband and then after the regime collapsed, they split. I understood to some extent what she went through, but not well enough. Later on, I understood about how she lived.

GBV victims will not see justice in court Case 002, but is sexual violence under the KR still a ‘mystery’?
I don’t know what to say. We say mystery because all the stories when we started were so abstract. Now I feel they have been little bit more revealed, and facts have come through. It’s difficult for some people, and even some survivors, to acknowledge because they cannot see all the facts. They may still think the Khmer Rouge did not commit crimes of sexual violence. It’s very difficult to talk of the younger generation.

Not many have heard about this topic. The younger generation needs to see [concrete]facts –more than you think. Still mysterious? Yes – but more people have come forward. If we don’t talk about this topic, it’s like it didn’t happen.

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