Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - A moving show on forced marriage




A moving show on forced marriage

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
A scene from this weekend’s performance of Phka Sla at Chaktomuk Theatre. Photo by Nobuyuki Arai

A moving show on forced marriage

Conveying the complexities – emotional and historical – of forced marriage under the Khmer Rouge through art is no easy task. But the dancers and musicians of the Sophiline Arts Ensemble and Khmer Arts delivered on just that over the weekend to three sold out audiences at Phnom Penh’s Chaktomuk Theatre.

Phka Sla – which means “areca flowers” in Khmer – is a mixture of contemporary and traditional dance, which premiered over the weekend as part of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia’s effort to provide cultural and moral “reparations” to the victims of the Khmer Rouge regime – in this case, the 779 civil parties who testified about forced marriages in the ongoing case 002/02 against former Democratic Kampuchea leaders Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea regarding their participation in the crime against humanity of forced marriage.

The testimonies of civil parties to the court form the basis of the storylines in the show, and the fates of those forced to marry under the regime are seamlessly woven into the choreography.

The performance opens with a traditional marriage, alongside an introduction of the concept of forced marriage as a policy of the Khmer Rouge regime, which encouraged it to boost the population. The practice remains a poorly understood form of the regime’s gender-based violence.

“Why wouldn’t a man want a wife?” the narrator asks. Before they can ponder the question, a flashback to 1978 transports the audience. The all-female dance troupe acts out scenes of forced labour as three menacing cadres watch over them. One by one, dancers are plucked from their work assignments and paired off, all in violent yet graceful movements.

Paired off, and symbolically bound by their kramas, the dancers convey the options faced by those who had to live through forced marriage. Some dance in harmony; others clearly struggle.

The production successfully avoids one-dimensional portrayals of the Khmer Rouge period. In one scene, Pisey, a woman executed by Angkar for killing her Khmer Rouge-appointed husband, is reunited with him in the afterlife, and they find reconciliation in their dialogue.

“I fought to liberate Cambodia from the corrupt Lon Nol government and the American imperialists . . . I wanted a fair, prosperous and independent Cambodia,” the cadre pleads, realising that the Khmer Rouge’s attempt at a utopia has catastrophically backfired as Pisey forgives him.

The music, which features variants on traditional melodies and interludes in which patriotic songs from the Khmer Rouge, cleverly immerses the audience into a challenging emotional and historical context.

The performance also captures the nuanced stories of couples that chose to stay together and renew their vows years later despite having been forced to marry.

Speaking after the show last night, civil party Om Noeun said her hope is that young people not only understand the history of forced marriage but value the chance they have to love freely.

Phka Sla symbolises our happiness,” she said. “Don’t abuse it.”

Meanwhile Seng Thong, a civil party from Ratanakkiri province, noted that disbelief and denial of what happened persist, a continuing source of anguish for those who lived through forced marriage.

For Soth Sovandy, one of the dancers, performing Phka Sla was so personal that it brought her to tears after the performance.

“I’m very happy to able to tell you the story of my parents [who were forced to marry] to you all,” she explained.

If the objective was to reach a young audience, as civil party lawyer Marie Guiraud stated in her opening remarks, then Phka Sla may have succeeded, if the feedback from young members of the audience is any indication.

“It’s a story everyone should know and not be scared of,” 24-year-old youth arts advocate Lomorpich Rithy told the Post. For Sreypov Oung, 23, this was the first time she had seriously confronted Khmer Rouge history.

“Before I just knew the word ‘Khmer Rouge Regime’ and just heard a little story from my friends and parents and relatives, but I never got a deep understanding, but today I got a greater understanding of what is the Khmer Rouge regime.”

MOST VIEWED

  • Would you like fries with that? US burger chain makes Phnom Penh debut

    California-based The Habit Burger Grill restaurant chain is all set to serve up a delicious array of charbroiled burgers and sides at its newest international location in the centre of Phnom Penh. The Habit is “renowned for its award-winning Charburgers grilled over an open flame,

  • Banteay Meanchey flood victims receive aid

    Prime Minister Hun Sen on Wednesday provided aid to more than 10,000 families affected by flooding in Banteay Meanchey province’s Mongkol Borei district and offered his condolences to the 18 victims who drowned in the province over the past week. He said flooding had occured in

  • PM urges caution as Polish man tests positive for Covid

    The Ministry of Health on Wednesday reported that a 47-year-old Polish man tested positive for Covid-19 after arriving in Cambodia on Monday. There are a total of six Covid-19 patients currently in the country, all of whom are being treated at the Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital

  • Banteay Meanchey floods kill one more as death toll reaches 15

    As floodwaters start to recede in Pursat, Battambang and Pailin provinces and Phnom Penh, Banteay Meanchey continues to bear the brunt as one more person was killed on Monday, bringing the total number of flood-related deaths to 15 in the province this month. Banteay Meanchey provincial

  • Serving coffee with a side of robots

    The eye-catching glass building surrounded by greenery at the intersection of Streets 371 and 2002 in Phnom Penh’s Sen Sok district is more than just another coffee shop where you can while away a few hours. UrHobby House cafe is filled with robots and characters from

  • Floods prompt evacuations in Kampong Speu

    Rain-induced floods and water flowing from Kampong Speu province have submerged the houses of 1,527 families living close to the Prek Thnot River in Spean Thma, Tien, Kong Noy and Roluos communes in Phnom Penh’s Dangkor district, according to data from local authorities. Spean Thma