When 76-year-old Yam Lash was raped nearly 40 years ago, it was as punishment for a crime she didn’t commit.
She had fallen sick while working under the brutally repressive Khmer Rouge regime and had been accused of malingering in hospital, despite the fact she received no medically recognised treatment.
“I said, ‘I am not well; my body is still swollen’,” she recalled yesterday, adding that she was given a shot of coconut juice and transferred to a different work site.
After she arrived, a group of cadres called her out of her house.
“They accused me of escaping to Vietnam,” she continued. “They walked me away from the house and started raping me at the bottom of a coconut tree.”
Her attackers choked her, and she was left lying unconscious, only to wake up hours later, being bitten by red ants after being “thrown away”. The next day she was refused her daily rice ration – because she had missed the morning’s work – and was beaten and jabbed in the vagina with a wooden stick by the chief of her work unit. No one helped.
This last part elicited an audible gasp from scores of listeners, mostly young students, who had gathered yesterday to hear Lash – and fellow victims Mom Vun, Los Vanna and Chea Nom – recount their stories at the Women’s Hearing with the Younger Generation on Gender-Based Violence.
According to the event’s organisers, the purpose of yesterday’s hearing was, in part, to spread awareness of the crimes committed by the ultra-Maoist regime among a generation that never experienced them for themselves.
In addition to rape, the seminar dealt with other forms of gender-based violence, like forced marriage, which, while not an actual charge in the Khmer Rouge tribunal’s current mini-trial, has been a repeated topic of discussion. As recently as April, a former Khmer Rouge commander testified at the court that marriages under the regime were never forced, and that nonetheless, the country needed to increase its population to adequately defend itself.
Sixty-five-year-old Vun’s testimony, however, depicted the Khmer Rouge’s system as a cruel breeding program in which she was forced to marry a stranger, then consummate the marriage as regime cadres looked on.
“They just stood and looked at us until we had intercourse; then they said, ‘They’ve already f****d’, and they left,” she said, her voice quavering and rising in pitch. “Then, when [I] became pregnant, they separated us.”
According to Cambodian Defenders Project executive director Sok Sam Oeun, half the point of the hearing was to take the air out of Khmer Rouge myths, and to expose its hypocrisies to a generation otherwise unfamiliar with them.
“If they read only the Khmer Rouge or communist theory, then maybe they think that it’s good,” he said. “That’s why we want to show the young generation that it’s not true.”
“I think that testimony, especially by the real victims, is more effective than only reading,” he added.
For 24-year-old student Sor Chhivhout, who said he had read about Khmer Rouge atrocities, the seminar had the desired effect.
“At an event like this, you can learn about the suffering of the victims of sexual [crimes],” he said, noting that the book he had read glossed over gender-based violence.
“The important thing about events like this is that we learn, and we never let things like this happen again,” he said.