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Documentary on forced Khmer Rouge weddings wins award

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People attend the Khmer Rouge tribunal in March 2012. Photograph: Heng Chivoan/Phnom Penh Post

Sochan Pen was 16-years-old when members of the Khmer Rouge forced her to marry one of their soldiers.

After the brief, loveless wedding ceremony, her new husband obeyed orders to rape her.

Now a farmer in her late 40s, Pen, who remarried following the fall of the regime, cannot shrug off the burden of that memory. In order to fall asleep at night, she uses tranquillisers.

“I take them every day,” she says in the documentary film Red Wedding, which was first released in 2011.

“I want to cut the parts of my body that my husband touched at that time.”

Red Wedding, which examines Pen’s day-to-day life and her emotional confrontation with the past, won the award for best mid-length documentary at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam over the weekend, drawing much needed attention to the hidden issue.

When strongman Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge lorded it over Cambodia from 1975 to 1979, researchers say, sexual and gender-based violence was common.

In one recent survey, around 30 per cent of respondents said they were direct witnesses to acts of rape.

As in Pen’s case, rape could mean that many women and men consummated marriage under the threat of death.

Red Wedding filmmakers Guillaume Suon and Lida Chan cite the alarming statistic that an estimated 250,000 women were forced to marry under the Khmer Rouge.

The subject is just starting to garner more attention, though is not fully understood.

Youk Chhang, the executive director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, said that being married could be a way of avoiding the much-feared mobile units and staying behind to work in the village.

There were others who did not fight the order.

“[A] few perceived forced marriage as karma and they in fact have stayed together until today,” he said.

In recent years, civil society groups, legal consultants, filmmakers and authors have been trying to bring about more awareness.

Cambodian-American filmmaker Socheata Poeuv went on a transcontinental quest in New Year Baby, a documentary that looked into the history of her own parents’ marriage under the Khmer Rouge.

She travelled with her mother and father to old villages and Khmer Rouge worksites to get answers.

The Cambodian Defenders Project, a legal advocacy organisation, first held a non-judicial “Women’s Hearing” in December, 2011, where victims spoke about gender violence endured under the Khmer Rouge.  

The resulting report is entitled I could feel my soul flying away from my body.

The title stems from a woman in the survey describing the helplessness she felt encountering a young women being gang-raped by a group of Khmer Rouge soldiers.

To contact the reporter on this story: Joe Freeman at joseph.freeman@phnompenhpost.com

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