The first time Oung Puon and Mam Yeat were married in 1978, under the Khmer Rouge’s forced marriage program, it was on the pain of death.
“They came for us in the night, about four or five cadres, and forced us and five other couples to marry without our agreement,” said Puon.
“They called our names and told me to take her hand as my wife, then made us give our word we would work for Angkar [the Khmer Rouge leadership] 100 per cent.
“We were married just like that, without any of our cultural traditions.”
This week, 38 years and eight children later, Puon, 69, and Yeat, 56, were married again – this time by choice.
Wearing bright traditional wedding clothes, the couple and four others from Thmor Keo village in Kampong Chhnang province renewed their vows on Wednesday during a group ceremony attended by almost 200 well-wishers.
Re-marriages are not uncommon among couples who were originally forced together.
Youk Chhang, executive director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia said: “There were some couples who re-married and some couples who divorced.” He added that he also knew of cases where individuals who couldn’t locate their spouse after the end of the regime chose to spend their lives single rather than betray the forced vows.
Puon said that after their first wedding, two cadres kept watch on them to make sure they slept together. But Puon said he didn’t force his wife to have sex because he wanted to follow tradition.
“We never hated each other, and we lived with each other until now,” he said.
“But I was always sad because they have prohibited us from having a wedding according to traditional customs.
He said he was happy to have re-married his wife and received a marriage certificate, even though he had reached old age.
“I always thought that I was born with bad destiny because I had no official ceremony for more than 30 years,” he said.
“I’m so happy, and so are the other couples, much more than we expected.”
Nou Va, a program manager at Youth for Peace Organization, said the wedding – supported by USAID, Youth for Peace and TPO under the Truth, Reconciliation, Healing program – had been suggested by the community and could be replicated elsewhere. The program also includes activities such as historical education and meetings between former Khmer Rouge cadres and victims.
Va said the wedding was an opportunity to acknowledge the participants’ pain, give them a chance to heal and teach the next generation about the Khmer Rouge.
Srey San, who also got married on Wednesday, was 28 when he married Thon Neang, who he had seen once.
“Angkar [the Khmer Rouge] wanted me to suggest the girl that I loved, so I suggested her to Angkar to prepare for me,” he said.
They were among 10 couples forced to marry before pledging their allegiance to Angkar.
Now 66 and with six children from his marriage to Neang, he said he had never considered the possibility of having a second wedding.
“At first, I thought I was too old and should not have a wedding, but then the organisation explained that it would be a good way to show the young people about the situation during the Khmer Rouge,” he said.
“The second wedding was completely different. We had wedding music and we followed every step of the traditional Khmer wedding.”