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S-21 survivor Chum Mey attends a civil party discussion
S-21 survivor Chum Mey attends a civil party discussion earlier this year. Khmer Rouge atrocities extended into marriage. Daniel Quinlan

Why we used the term ‘forced’

In response to Peg LeVine’s letter, "Weddings under the Khmer Rouge: How has ‘forced’ been decided", I would like to provide some points of clarification and elaboration about the recently released report by Transcultural Psychosocial Organisation of Cambodia (TPO), Like Ghost Changes Body: A Study on the Impact of Forced Marriage under the Khmer Rouge Regime.

First, to answer to the important question in the title of Dr LeVine’s letter: how was “forced” decided in the research? Rather than assume that marriages arranged by the Khmer Rouge regime were “forced”, a series of questions on a standardised survey were used, first, to determine choice and consent of the respondent in regards to the marriage and, then, to probe how the marriage was forced.

All respondents were queried: Were you asked to marry during the regime in a marriage arranged by the Khmer Rouge? Did you eventually marry in the end? Who administered the marriage? Was it your choice to marry? If the marriage was not your choice, how were you forced to marry? Did you refuse and, if so, how many times did you refuse and what were the consequences for refusing?

Answers to questions in research are determined by the sample of people questioned. Samples in turn are determined by the aim of the research. The primary goal of the TPO study was to better understand the impacts of Khmer Rouge forced marriages over time. Therefore, our sample was purposively targeted. While we did not assume that all respondents would describe their marriages as forced (thus our filter question queried if they were asked to marry in a marriage arranged by the Khmer Rouge), we intentionally sampled for those we anticipated had experienced marriages arranged and coerced by the state so as to probe long-term impacts.

For example, we limited our sample to civil parties to the Khmer Rouge tribunal for Case 002, which will include the trial on “regulation of marriage”. Additionally, the majority of respondents were clients of TPO and CDP as part of a joint project, in partnership with the Victims Support Section of the Tribunal, on gender-based violence during the Khmer Rouge regime. While LeVine erroneously describes our sample as exclusive to female survivors, in fact we included both men and women, knowing that both were subject to the Khmer Rouge marriage policy.

As the report describes, our small and targeted sample is biased as a result, and our findings cannot be generalised to the full population. Our limitations section explains how the research did not aspire to produce new evidence for the tribunal or to account for regional and other variances in the implementation of Khmer Rouge marriage policy.

Yet, because of this targeted sample – and the courageous sharing of respondents about difficult experiences – the study is able to contribute to greater understanding of the ongoing impacts on individuals who were asked to marry during the Khmer Rouge regime and either were forced to do so in the end, or faced serious consequences for refusing.

Indeed, from survey results, virtually all marriages arranged by the Khmer Rouge were reported by our sample as forced. Of 106 male and female respondents, 97 per cent reported it was not their choice to marry in marriages arranged by the Khmer Rouge, with 97 per cent reporting they eventually did marry. Following the wedding procedure, 88.1 per cent of respondents who did marry reported feeling forced to have sex following the wedding procedure.

Most respondents reported fear for their survival – through threatened or actual violence – if they did not cooperate with either the wedding or the sexual relations. An even smaller and targeted sample of men and women was chosen for eight qualitative interviews of nine respondents, including a couple interviewed together who reported being forced to marry and whose marriage remains intact today.

These interviews help us to understand more deeply, among other things, the consequences for not accepting a marriage arranged by Khmer Rouge actors and the enforced conjugal relations that followed.

Two cases, both women, reported being subjected to sexual slavery by members of the Khmer Rouge for refusing a marriage; in another case, a woman, forced to marry at gun point, was raped by her husband with the aid of Khmer Rouge cadre. In this last case, it is unclear if the husband himself was compelled to commit rape out of fear for his own survival. In the case of the married couple interviewed, they mutually agreed to hide from cadre that they were not having sex. Over the years their relationship has developed into one of deep affection and regard – resulting in six children, the first born in late 1980 – illustrating the triumph of human dignity in the face of lethal coercion and panoptical oppression.

Like Ghost Changes Body cannot speak for all marriages that occurred during the Khmer Rouge era. Its contribution is to provide space for the voices of those victims, men and women, who experienced gender-based violence as part of the general atrocity, a topic long neglected in the historical discourse about the regime.

Theresa de Langis, PhD, was the lead author for Transcultural Psychosocial Organisation of Cambodia’s report Like Ghost Changes Body: A Study on the Impact of Forced Marriage under the Khmer Rouge Regime.

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