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Khmer Rouge-era marriages explored in new book

A wedding photo from the Khmer Rouge period shows the head of the re-education centre at Prey Sar, then known as S-24, (left) marrying an official at S-24. DC-CAM
A wedding photo from the Khmer Rouge period shows the head of the re-education centre at Prey Sar, then known as S-24, (left) marrying an official at S-24. DC-CAM

Khmer Rouge-era marriages explored in new book

Child brides, Khmer Rouge spies and tragic suicides are all explored in a series of vignettes of marriage during the brutal regime, in the latest work from researcher Kasumi Nakagawa.

Nakagawa testified at the Khmer Rouge tribunal last year as an expert witness on forced marriage. The experience pushed her to study further with a team of students.

While the tribunal has explored horrific cases of rape in forced marriage, Nakagawa’s latest study shares stories that are compelling in their variance – no two experiences were the same.

The majority (about 60 percent) of the 87 people surveyed for the self-published book Against Her Will: Stories of Mass Weddings during the Khmer Rouge regime, which became available at Monument Books this week, said they were “forced” to marry. Half didn’t know their spouse’s name.

But the remainder said they had agreed to a match or volunteered to marry in weddings that were always “authorised” by the all-seeing, all-controlling Angkar – the Khmer Rouge “organisation”.

“Interestingly, sometimes the husband said that he was happy to marry whilst the wife said that she had been forced,” Nakagawa writes in her book, speaking of couples who remain married some 40 years later.

Prek Koemheang, from Kampong Cham province, remembers being just 14 when she was forced to marry.

“I said that I did not want to get married. But then I was told that I would be killed if I didn’t, so I married him,” she says.

Sun Borng, from Preah Vihear province, was forced to marry at 18.

“Some people could not refuse to marry, so they decided to commit a suicide,” he says.

In one case, however, the Khmer Rouge system of marriages allowed one couple to transgress family expectations and social class. Hoy Sochivanny remembers how a beautiful but poor woman agreed to marry a man from a rich family background who was in love with her, despite his brothers’ objections. They were forced to divorce after the regime fell.

With some exceptions, men were often permitted to pick a wife, but the reverse wasn’t true.

For researcher Theresa de Langis, lead author of When Ghost Changes Body, which examines the impact of forced marriages, said women did not have the same prerogative to request a match.

“In other words, gender inequality was reinscribed in the system of forced marriages as set up by the regime in that women had little to no choice in a matter that was central to their lives and well-being,” she said.

Peg LeVine, who also testified as an expert witness, warned against publications that had not undergone rigorous scholarly review and took issue with the term “forced”.

“The danger in assigning the term ‘forced’ to the whole of the Khmer Rouge marriages is that we foreclose a more nuanced understanding of processes that fuelled and/or subdued the crimes against humanity that were being committed by the Khmer Rouge,” she said via email.

“I found that certain group wedding activities increased in specific zones following purges in those regions. I don't think that was a coincidence.”

She added that “most Cambodian marriages in those days were not romantic” and usually arranged by parents, who followed protective rituals to weed out unsuitable or violent partners. This was stripped away under the Khmer Rouge – a phenomenon for which she coined the term “ritualcide”.

De Langis said it was “always important to look not only at nuance, but also variance, when talking about violence against women”.

“But these individual instances develop into a clear pattern of systemic implementation, and thus it is the system, rather than individual variances, that allows us to say that the Khmer Rouge regime is characterised by this type of violation,” she said.

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