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Breaking silence on forced marriage

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A survivor from Kampot province opens up about her experience of forced marriage, rape and pregnancy during the Khmer Rouge. A new documentary, Breaking the Silence, features women finally speaking out in the face of enduring stigma. Khmer Mekong Films Cambodia

Breaking silence on forced marriage

Mom Vun speaks not for the camera, but to a courtroom: “This was unforgettable humiliation,” she says. “I will never forget what happened that night.” One of an estimated 250,000 Cambodian men and women, Vun was forced into marriage under the Khmer Rouge regime, in what is alleged to have been a state-sponsored program designed to bolster the population. Instead, it resulted in countless cases of rape.

The issue of forced marriage and rape came before the Khmer Rouge tribunal last year, grabbing international headlines. It’s the subject of Breaking the Silence, a 50-minute documentary funded by the British Embassy and due to premiere in Phnom Penh tonight.

Here's the trailer:

The reason the topic was catapulted to the world stage is, in part, because for so long it had remained forgotten – even ignored, suggests David Cohen, the director of the Handa Centre for Human Rights and International Justice at Stanford University.

A second reason, he suggests, is that sexual violence is pervasive in conflicts dotted across the world, although the crime of forced marriage is less common. “Sexual violence has to be seen as an inevitable, unfortunate consequence of mass atrocity and armed conflicts wherever they occur,” he told The Post.

This, for many victims who had nursed their shame in silence, can be a bitter pill to swallow. The film explores how, after decades of secrecy, victims who come forward will not see their rapists brought to justice before the Khmer Rouge tribunal – an impossibility given the sheer number of victims and perpetrators.

The film opens with historic shots of labour camps and enthused communist chanting, before homing in on the “hidden dimension of that suffering”: sexual violence.

It switches to an idyllic palette of greens and blues, in Kampot province. One survivor of the regime, her name withheld, explains how she was lined up, paired off and married by Khmer Rouge cadres. She split from her husband after the fall of the regime; their daughter, now grown, does not know if her father is alive.

Couples were monitored, forcing them to consummate. Victims recount their stories, revealing a traumatic pattern, as lawyers and experts weigh in on how such crimes could happen.

The documentary doesn’t shy away from the criticisms the court received, notably about the length of time it took to address the crimes of sexual violence – a full decade after the multinational court was established to try senior members of the Khmer Rouge.

But it does leave out crucial voices, like those of the defendants and their lawyers. The documentary essentially removes the two former senior leaders – Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan – from the picture, and instead focuses on the lived experience of survivors, as well as artistic programs outside the courtroom designed to help victims heal.

The film also draws a thread between the sexual violence of the past, and a “culture of impunity” surrounding rape and domestic violence in modern-day Cambodia.

It closes with words from First They Killed My Father director Angelina Jolie, who praises the victims for braving the stigma and speaking out. “I believe they are heroes to us all,” she says in the documentary.

“It is simply unacceptable that crimes against women and girls happen with impunity and are still treated as a lesser crime.”

The public screening will take place tonight at 6pm at the Kravan Hotel on Street 228. The screening will be followed by a short question and answer session. To reserve
a place for tonight’s screening, contact [email protected].

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