After a six-month whirlwind romance, Sou Li Lin and Mom Kannha decided that they wanted to tie the knot.
The celebration took place over the weekend in their home province of Kampong Chhnang, where the couple, dressed in traditional Cambodian wedding attire, declared their commitment to one another in front of family and friends.
But while to passersby it might have looked like any Cambodian wedding, this one was illegal.
Sou Li Lin and Mom Kannha are both women, and because of that, Chea Vannak, Kampong Chhnang commune police chief, said he was unable to grant the couple’s request for an official wedding.
The experience of Li Lin and Kannha echoes that of couples across the country who are unable to marry but permitted by officials to hold a celebration.
“We could not allow them to marry normally, because we have no law giving us permission [to do so],” said Vannak, who personally offered his own creative alternative.
Vannak paved the way for the couple to celebrate their commitment on Sunday within the boundaries of the law by ordering them to change the ceremony to an “ordinary party”, without a wedding certificate.
Article 6 of Cambodia’s Marriage Law, signed in 1989, states that “marriage shall be prohibited to a person whose sex is the same sex as the other”.
But Li Lin and Kannha, a lesbian couple, continued to prepare for a traditional ceremony anyway.
“I love traditional Cambodian weddings – that’s why I helped my mum to prepare it, even though we didn’t have permission,” Kannha said.
Levels of tolerance for such celebrations “normally come down to the characters and people involved”, rather than any official policy, according to Rainbow Community Kampuchea’s (RoCK) Collette O’Regan.
Similarly, chances of obtaining family books, documents that Cambodian law mandates all families keep to identify spouses and children, “come down to the level of relationships and respect the couple [has] with the local authorities,” she said by email.
Couples who have secured family books usually do so “through years of living peacefully and lovingly together and showing all their neighbours and the local authorities that their relationship is a real partnership”.
But the problems generated by the law are great.
“It puts [couples] in very vulnerable situations when they interface with state agencies because the state does not give any recognition or protection to their love and their relationship,” O’Regan said, adding that in the future, she hopes that recognition of same-sex relationships will be made official.
“It may take a few more years but there have been more and more positive developments happening in recent times.” In the meantime, “Cambodian solutions are found for Cambodian problems.”
Li Lin, who dressed in a traditional groom’s outfit for the occasion, said the lack of officialdom would not affect her relationship. “We just wanted to hold a traditional Cambodian wedding because my wife loves wedding dresses, and we think that we could love each other forever.”