In 1978, Khen Sothyra and Seng Samoeurn were forced to marry in a mass ceremony with 179 other couples. It was during the last months of the Khmer Rouge regime, and the incentive to wed was simple: those who refused risked being killed.
The couple – who are still married nearly 40 years on – recently told the Post about the bizarre series of ceremonies where they were herded around from place to place like cattle.
First, they had to walk 2 kilometres to a large wooden building where two representatives were chosen at random to recite vows for all 180 couples.
It was the first time that Sothyra had laid eyes on her future husband.
After the marriage, they walked another 8 kilometres for a ceremonial dinner. When the dinner ended, each couple was assigned a new place to live. Sothyra and Samoeurn walked from 9pm to 4am in the pouring rain to reach their new home. Throughout the entire ordeal, Sothyra didn’t even have shoes.
This month, the Khmer Rouge tribunal is hearing testimony related to forced marriage as a crime against humanity. The two surviving leaders of the regime – Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan – are the defendants.
Today, Sothyra and Samoeurn are happily married and live in a handsome home in Phnom Penh. They have four children, one of whom – a daughter – recently got married in what Sothyra describes as “a love marriage”.
When asked why they stayed together after the Khmer Rouge fell, Sothyra laughs. “I never even thought of separating,” she says.
Theresa de Langis, who has done extensive research on the issue of forced marriage and its lasting effects on Khmer society, believes about half of couples forcibly married during the Khmer Rouge period are still together. The most obvious reason, she says, is because of the children who were conceived or born during the regime.
Another researcher, Kasumi Nakagawa, points out that the policy of forced marriage began in 1978, only a year before the Khmer Rouge fell, and that by then, many of the women were malnourished, making pregnancy difficult. Sothyra and Samoeurn, for example, had no children together when the regime fell, but they remained together.
To the Western world, which places huge importance on the concepts of romantic love and free will, the idea of an arranged marriage, let alone a forced marriage, is alien. But complex underlying social factors help explain the importance of arranged marriages in Khmer culture, as well as explaining why couples that were forced to marry stayed together.
Pragmatism and honour
A report on forced marriages, called Like Ghost Changes Body, released by the Transcultural Psychosocial Organisation (TPO) in 2014, and edited by de Langis, lists “pragmatism” as another important factor, other than children, in keeping couples together.
Social norms dictated what was pragmatic, de Langis says.
By that she means that it was not pragmatic, for example, for a woman to live alone in a male-dominated society. It was also not pragmatic for a woman to divorce after losing her virginity because she getting remarried would then be difficult. And if the marriage was seen as inauthentic in any way, then the loss of virginity was dishonourable rather than the legitimate consummation of a marriage.
These social anxieties are evident in a series of interviews with women who were forced to marry during the Khmer Rouge. The interviews were released in 2015 as a companion to the TPO report. One woman said she was hesitant to remarry because she “did not want people to say [she] had too many husbands”.
Another told how she divorced her Khmer Rouge-era husband, but when she tried to get remarried, her new suitor’s mother refused to let him marry a divorcée. “Although the Khmer Rouge regime is over, the shame is with me forever,” she added.
She eventually did marry again, to another divorcée. She stayed with her second husband even though he was abusive. “If I would have divorced a second time, it would have ruined my reputation,” she said.
That is because the idealisation of virginity is enshrined in the family, says Nakagawa.
“Virginity matters not only to a daughter alone, but [also] . . . for keeping family reputation,” she says. “The daughters who married during the Khmer Rouge were already used goods in the eyes of their parents. Their purity could not be recovered.”
It’s a notion reflected – sometimes tragically – in today’s social values: “This logic is still seen in Cambodian society when a daughter who was raped is encouraged to marry her rapist so as to recover her and her family’s reputation,” Nakagawa says.
A woman’s place?
Despite the Khmer Rouge’s attempt to subvert social order, forced marriages did not occur in a vacuum. “Arranged marriage and forced marriage are part of a continuum of oppression,” de Langis says, explaining that the continuum “existed before the Khmer Rouge, during the Khmer Rouge, and after the Khmer Rouge”.
While de Langis and Nakagawa both stress the enormous distinction between an arranged marriage and a forced marriage, the former believes that, for Cambodian women in particular, their social role has long been “reproductive labour” – that is, child bearing.
Some of the women who were forced to marry may have accepted their marriage simply because marriage was seen as the apogee of Khmer womanhood, as the lack of it would have rendered them invisible. “Being married is still part of being considered a fully developed Khmer woman today,” says de Langis.
Divorce is similarly not a realistic option. “There is no place in this society for divorced women, especially in the past,” de Langis says. One of the TPO interview subjects explained the significance of marriage within Cambodian culture.
“The wedding is valuable to women because everyone acknowledges a married woman as a good daughter who is obedient,” she said.
Another interviewee, whose husband was killed during the Khmer Rouge period, said she got remarried to ensure other men would stop harassing her.
A third, who divorced her husband, said she still faces discrimination for being a single woman. “Society discriminates against me”, she said. “We are broken, like a tree branch. Even at my own daughter’s wedding, I was not allowed to stand up as her parent, and my mother participated in the wedding instead of me.”
Love (or the lack of it)
Nakagawa believes that the unimportance of romantic love in arranged marriages could explain why many women accepted partnerships devoid of love in forced marriages. “My understanding is that if a woman could have genuine love for her husband, then it was good luck for her life,” Nakagawa said during her testimony in September at the Khmer Rouge tribunal.
“Because love does not come automatically with a marriage. The term ‘love’ is very difficult to identify in Cambodian culture. The women took it for granted that they would have a husband, they had to respect their husband.”
For de Langis, it’s more complex.
“Love is culturally defined. I don’t feel comfortable saying that traditional Khmer marriages don’t have love. It imposes the Western idea of love on another culture,” she says. “Maybe romantic love is not the centre of the stage, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. I was surprised by how many people brought up love as a reason they stayed together.”
For Sothyra, at least, love was not something she associated with marriage – and it wasn’t a factor in her decision to stay with Samoeurn.
“I never thought about love,” she says when asked about her impression of marriage before the Khmer Rouge. “I knew I needed to be with somebody who had my level of education and social status.”
She says that when she was forced to marry Samoeurn, she was relieved that he was healthy, educated and handsome. She did not want to be forcibly married, but acknowledges that her match could have been much worse.
“We were compatible,” Sothyra says, explaining why she stayed with her husband when the regime fell. “We were both educated and we understood each other.”
And from that compatibility, a deep love grew.
Many people starved to death during the Khmer Rouge regime. Samoeurn would sneak extra food to his wife, a crime that was punishable by death. He took care of her after she became sick from walking home in the rain on their wedding night. He made her a pair of shoes. He loved her, he says, from the day he first saw her.
That was not the case for Sothyra. “When we first married, I did not love him,” she says. “The relationship was not strong. There was no passion.”
But Samoeurn won her over with his loyalty and dependability.
“He was a good husband, he provided for us, and he did so much for the family,” Sothyra says, looking at her husband. “When we were first married I didn’t love him, but we have been through so much difficulty together and this is how our relationship has grown stronger.”