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One of the many forced weddings that took place under the Khmer Rouge
One of the many forced weddings that took place under the Khmer Rouge. DC-CAM

The ties that still bind

Thirty-five years after the collapse of the Khmer Rouge regime, the spectre of its forced marriage campaign lives on in modern day Cambodia, stalking its victims and even affecting current relationships, according to new findings on the toll of the decades-old program.

Released today by the Transcultural Psychosocial Organisation (TPO), the first of two reports, “Like ghost changes body” – a Study on the Impact of Forced Marriage during the Khmer Rouge, uses the experiences of 106 civil parties to the Khmer Rouge tribunal’s Case 002 to delve into the dark details of the class-levelling regime’s mandatory unions.

The report aims to offer a better understanding of the impact of forced marriages – which “eliminated choice, were without consent, and took place within a context of severe coercion” – from the Khmer Rouge period to the present day.

“The general perception is that forced marriages and enforced conjugal relations were not qualitatively different from traditionally arranged marriages, and therefore should not be prioritised by the ECCC [Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia],” the report’s author, Theresa de Langis, told the Post by email yesterday.

However, the study “demonstrates this is not the case, that respondents were aware in real time that the fundamental right to make a central life decision, according to cultural and social customs, was violated and that the trauma of that violation continues until today and includes far-reaching inter-generational impact,” she said.

In the case of Taing Kim, who narrowly avoided an unwanted matrimony at age 19 in 1977, her efforts to dodge the union had far-reaching consequences.

“His name was Bun Thorn, he was about 30 [at the time] and of big build. One day he came to me and asked me to sew a torn krama. I asked why he needed my help, and my colleagues told me that was the guy I would marry, so we were called fiancees for about a month,” she told the Post yesterday.

On the day of their wedding, Kim decided to put her life on the line to escape the ceremony.

“I climbed up a papaya tree to hide myself on my wedding day, and the female Khmer Rouge soldiers could not find me. I was waiting up there for three hours until the wedding ended,” she said.

When she came down from the tree, the soldiers told Kim that she was free “this time”.

Next time, they said, she would not be so lucky.

Kim, who avoided being married off throughout the regime, also narrowly escaped execution when she was sent for re-education by being the last woman in a line of eight to be killed.

“Those images of hiding away from the forced marriage and bringing me for education, which meant I should have died, are still haunting me. I’m living with those shadows,” Kim said.

According to the report, an overwhelming 70.2 per cent of those who took part in the study continue to suffer from mental health problems of varying degrees.

More than a quarter reported “social problems, including feeling shamed because the traditional wedding ceremony had not been followed”.

Langis explained that the “absence of parents and ancestral rites” during the wedding ceremonies meant “they were by definition ‘improper’ marriages and, especially for women respondents, were seen as acts of potential disobedience”.

Others reported economic hardship as a result of their forced marriages.

The report says its most significant finding was that the campaign of forced marriage “stripped people of the fundamental right to choice and consent” and, in doing so, “perpetuated a culture of rape and abuse, especially for women, by which sexualised gender-based violence, particularly in marriage and for punishment, was normalised via state policy and with impunity”.

The report states that the affects of these violations still linger today.

According to the second TPO study released today, A Study of Gender-Based Violence During the Khmer Rouge Regime – which is based on the testimonies of 222 civil parties to Case 002 and looks at rape, forced sexual services and sexual mutilation – 25 per cent of the respondents reported having experienced gender-based violence after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime and 75 per cent domestic violence.

In her own report, de Langis said she “found it very distressing to learn that nearly a quarter of forced marriages [24.5 per cent] included spousal abuse . . . and that some abusive forced marriages exist until today because no national policy has ever addressed the status or validity of Khmer Rouge forced marriages after the fall of the regime”.

“For this latter group, the Khmer Rouge era never really ended and continues . . . in the form of ongoing spousal abuse and rape,” she said.

Last year, a United Nations report said that one in five Cambodian men have committed rape, but more than 44 per cent of them have never faced any legal consequences, citing “cultural acceptance and impunity” as key reasons that violence against women remains rampant.

De Langis said that while “causal links cannot be drawn with the research at hand, the correlation indicates the need to dramatically change social norms around sexual consent and equality between men and women in society generally”.

Among its recommendations, the report calls on the government to “institute redress and reparations for victims of forced marriage, including monetary compensation and psychosocial” support.

“The government has a role to play in publicly recognising this crime and its far-reaching consequences on families even today,” de Langis said.

But Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said the government “doesn’t want to do anything until the ECCC orders us to”.

“It is the jurisdiction of the ECCC,” he explained.

Kim said that she was frustrated with the tribunal.

“There is a lot of evidence and witnesses speaking out about what happened during the Khmer Rouge regime, but why does the court need to spend so much time on that? It’s a waste of their time, and it’s a waste of my time as a civil party,” she said.

But for other civil parties, the ECCC is a positive step. In the second TPO report, 95.4 per cent of the 222 civil parties said their participation had a positive effect on them and their families.

The vast majority of those included in the study reported feeling more hopeful for the future since taking part in the tribunal.

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