Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Sex slaves or power pawns?

Sex slaves or power pawns?

Sex slaves or power pawns?



early texts from which Cambodian history is derived are replete with references to

slaves. Indeed, slaves seem to have been an integral part of life for most Cambodians.

A maxim of Cbpab Preah Rajamsambhar, dating to the early 18th century, advised that

a good man was one who had "a happy wife and home, children who obey their father,

and slaves who bring themselves to their master to hear his orders."

Yet very little is known of slave roles, their social status, or even who these people

were. Some information is available, however; from the fifth century when Chinese

diplomats recorded that in Cambodia "They take by force the inhabitants of nearby

towns that do not pay them tribute, and make them into their slaves." This resulted

in peoples of different ethnicities serving in Cambodian palaces, households, and

temples. Many inscriptions, even those from before the heyday of Angkor, refer to

Mon, Cham and "yuan" (possibly Javanese) slaves.

There appears to have been very little difference between male and female slaves

in pre-modern Cambodia. Usually inscriptions listed them separately, as knyum ta

si, "slaves that are male," followed by a list, and knyum ta kantai, "slaves

that are female" with a list of women and children. All toiled as laborers in

rice paddies, orchards and fields. As a group they appear to have had ties to particular

people rather than places, as donors gave, removed and redistributed them to religious

personages and communities at will.

Indravarman I (877-889) donated to a temple "a great number of pretty dancers,

singers, reciters, musicians, a great number of handsome and well-made men, tutored

in dance and other arts, of good virtue, ornamented with finery."

Female singers, dancers and musicians received elegant names such as "Jasmine

blossom." Others names reveal more salacious roles, such as "Born-for-love,"

"She-who-laughs-for-penis" and "She-who-eats-penis," although

it is unclear whether these were due to the characters of the persons so named or

a reference to the acts they performed. If the latter is true, there is evidence

to suggest that sexual duties were not universally popular; one inscription records

a woman known as "Penis-hater." Male slaves also received names of this

type, such as "Catch-him-if-you-want-him" and "Mischievous-penis."

Any children of a woman designated a slave automatically became slaves themselves,

clear evidence that at least this strata of society in early Cambodia operated according

to matrilineal lines. For example, during the reign of Yasovarman I (889-910) a female

slave named Kantem was purchased and "the ownership of this woman was given

until her death, and that of her children and grandchildren." It mattered little

if a slave became pregnant, as her master would thereby increase his number of slaves.

Paternity was unimportant.

It was considered extremely bad form for free persons to approach a slave woman of

their own accord for sexual favors. Zhou Daguan, a visitor to Angkor at the end of

the 13th century, recorded that "if by chance a Chinese, arriving in the country

after long abstinence, should assuage his appetite with one of the women slaves,

and the fact becomes known to her owner, the latter would refuse to be seated in

the presence of the man." Slave women remained the property of their master

and were his to offer to his guests, or to avail himself of, as he saw fit.

The practice of offering wo-men to visitors continued well into the modern period.

Jacob van Neck, a Dutch trader of the 17th century, related that as soon as Europeans

arrived in a Southeast Asian port, local men "come and ask them whether they

do not desire a woman." This offering of hospitality, in addition to food and

lodging, was aimed at securing the goodwill, and therefore the business, of the particular

trader. As it was customary for traders to stay for months or even years, temporary

marriages would often be entered into between foreigners and women with obligations

to the master of the house.

These "temporary wives" were great assets. Women in early Cambodia were

responsible for day-to-day economic transactions. The mercantile skills of local

women were an asset to a foreign trader. But there were other benefits of acquiring

a temporary wife: "Once they agree about the money (which does not amount to

much for so great a convenience), she comes to the house, and serves him by day as

his maidservant and by night as his bedded wife. He is then not able to consort with

other women or he will be in grave trouble with his wife, but the marriage lasts

as long as he keeps his residence there, in good peace and unity."

Temporary marriages were conducted in the same manner as a permanent union. Partners

were expected to behave with respect and fidelity towards each other. Local rules

applied to these marriages, with the relatives of the women concerned prepared to

act on their behalf should they be mistreated at the hands of their husband.

Often traders preferred slave women as they were accustomed to fulfilling both domestic

and sexual roles, and, unlike free women, they had recourse to fewer rights under

the law. Middle Cambodian law described three categories of wives, the lowest of

which was prapuon jerng or tasey pirea, an alternative rendition of the Sanskrit

dasi bhariya, "slave wife."

Women with obligations - be they slaves or poor relatives - to the Cambodian elite

in the premodern period were socially bound to fulfil a variety of roles, including

providing sexual services, in furthering the interests or objectives of their patrons.

There was no stigma attached to this; upon the departure of a temporary "husband,"

women could be enter into a liaison with another, "in all propriety, without

scandal." The degree to which such women were able to exercise any freedom of

choice in the matter, however, is highly debatable.

The chronicles

There are 35 complete and fragmentary documents in Khmer that make up the Cambodian

chronicles, found by the French in various wats, the royal palace, and in the possession

of elite families. None date earlier than 1796.

They incorporate earlier oral histories and texts that have since been lost to the

climate and upheaval of civil wars. Together these 35 documents make up eight different

versions of Cambodian history.

Two Khmer scholars working in France, Khin Sok and Mak Phoeun, have translated the

most comprehensive account of the chronicles into French, also offering commentaries

upon dates and events, and supplying in appendices the different or missing accounts.

About the author

* Dr Trudy Jacobsen is lecturer in history at the School of History, Philosophy,

Religion and Classics of the Unversity of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia. She has

taught courses on Contemporary Southeast Asia; Genocide and Persecution, Revenge

and Reconciliation; and Ghosts from the Past - Problems of Revenge and Reconciliation

in History.


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