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Civil party Sou Sotheavy testifies before the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia yesterday during case 002/02 against Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan. ECCC
Civil party Sou Sotheavy testifies before the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia yesterday during case 002/02 against Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan. ECCC

Witnesses describe horrors of forced marriage at KRT

In emotionally charged testimony at the Khmer Rouge tribunal yesterday, a witness revealed she was raped by her unit commander after refusing to consummate her forced marriage – a crime she had never disclosed before – while prominent transgender activist Sou Sotheavy testified through tears about being compelled to father a child.

The wrenching accounts came as the tribunal begins to examine the crime of forced marriage, the only charge stemming from the gender-based violence that occurred under the regime that the court is slated to try.

The first witness, a medic whose name remains confidential, continued her testimony from Monday, in which she said she was forced to marry a Khmer Rouge cadre despite already being married to a man who disappeared during the regime. After a mass ceremony, she was taken to a room where her new husband was waiting.

When she refused his advances, he left the room and informed his military commander, whom she identified as Comrade Pan. The witness confided she was summoned to Comrade Pan’s room, where he threatened her with a pistol and raped her.

“He said that if he raped me and I shouted, then I would be shot dead,” she said. “I had to bite my lip and shed my tears, but I didn’t dare to make any noise, because I was afraid I would be killed.”

“I never told such a story to anyone, but now it is time for me to speak it out,” she said.

The witness said one night she walked out of her house to relieve herself, and noticed militiamen standing close by. She believed they were sent to spy on the newlyweds.

“At night time, the guards monitored us and if we did not consummate our marriage, measures would be taken,” she said. Her cousin, she said, had refused a forced marriage and was taken away by the same Comrade Pan, raped by three soldiers and killed; she was later shown her slain cousin’s clothes.

The witness gave birth to a girl in late 1978, and when the Vietnamese invaded in early 1979, she and her husband fled in different directions. Three years after the fall of the regime, they reunited on the urging of her parents and other villagers.

“He had an ugly appearance with big eyes. I did not love him,” she said.

Defence lawyer Liv Sovanna asked the witness about her first marriage – arranged by her parents – and posed repeated and probing questions about the precise timing and nature of the victim’s sex life with her husband, prompting a reprimand from judge Claudia Fenz.

“There is a need for vigorous examination . . . [but] there is also a certain need for sensitivity,” she said.

The witness also demanded the accused tell her why her aunt – who she said had a close relationship with Khieu Samphan – had been taken to Tuol Sleng prison and killed during the regime.

Later in the day, in intimate testimony that drew tears from court attendees, Sou Sotheavy, who was born a biological male but identifies as a transgender woman, testified she was forced to marry in a collective ceremony of 107 couples.

Other transgender people she knew refused to marry and instead committed suicide by drinking poison. “I kept on refusing to get married, because I never loved women, I love only men. That is my nature since I was born,” she said.

But realising there was no alternative, Sotheavy, who had had her long hair slashed short by soldiers, devised a plot with a sympathetic woman in the village to ensure they would be matched.

Sotheavy slung a krama around her neck, while the other woman wrapped one around her head before they were lined up – men and women – in a room.

When their Khmer Rouge superiors switched off the lights and told each to find a partner by grabbing or touching them in the dark – “like a game of hide-and-seek” – Sotheavy was able to find the woman in the headscarf.

“We were forced, we were compelled to get married,” she said. “Angkar required us to get married to increase the population.”

At night, they saw “shadows” beneath their house: “We knew immediately they were spying on us”.

A relative gave Sotheavy wine and under the effects of the alcohol she was able to have sex with her wife, in a bid to save their lives.

Sotheavy did not know her wife was pregnant until she delivered a “beautiful” baby girl, though she and her wife were forced to live apart by the regime and were separated in 1979.

Despite searching for 40 years, she has never found her daughter. “It was tragic that we got separated from each other, it was painful for me,” she said.

“Although I did not love women, I still feel sympathy towards my child . . . I have always thought about them.”

Sotheavy’s testimony continues today.

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