Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Successes rare in forced marriages

Successes rare in forced marriages

Successes rare in forced marriages

S OKHIM is a rarity in Cambodia - a bright, attractive 38-year-old killing fields

survivor making a career for herself with a thriving foreign company while

raising four children in a single parent household.

Sethi, 39, who also

made it through the bleak years of Khmer Rouge rule, holds a stable government

job while his supportive wife Kannitha looks after their happy brood at

home.

They prefer to forget the dark past, but these three - and former

Khmer Rouge combatant, Premier Hun Sen - share a legacy of Pol Pot's monstrous

experiment in social engineering: forced marriage.

Sokhim was a carefree

high-school student with ambitions of becoming an air-hostess when the

battle-hardened Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975 and emptied the

capital at gun point.

Life in the rice fields of Battambang was hard but

bearable until tragedy struck in mid-1978, when her father died and her mother

and siblings moved to another village.

"One day the village leader forced

me to get married... they said, if not they might force me to marry a

handicapped person," said Sokhim, recalling a drab mass wedding of about 20

couples that was sealed by a hand shake with a 28-year-old man she had never

met.

"At that time I got married just for my life, I never felt love...

It's a hard life, how can we fall in love with anyone."

When peace came

after six months of marriage, Sokhim realized she had married a bum with no

ambition and a penchant for the bottle but she bowed to her mother's advice and

gave up talk of a divorce.

The couple worked in the same state enterprise

in Phnom Penh during the lean years of the 1980s, and Sokhim started crying when

she remembered her struggle to earn a living and run a household without any

help from her spouse. "Its been a bad dream for me."

Her husband resented

her nagging and sometimes hit her when drunk, she said, adding: "He was like a

drunk man always. He drank a bottle of wine a day but never a good

bottle."

"I divorced him in 1990. Before I thought I could be a good

wife... I left him to find a good future for my children," said Sokhim, who

proved her husband's predictions of poverty wrong by working her way up from

cleaning lady to assistant manager of a consultancy group managing the business

of top Western firms.

Forced marriage proved more auspicious for Sethi

and Kannitha (who asked for assumed names to be used in this article) and their

relationship has blossomed into love.

They were married in a midnight

ceremony with more than 50 other couples in late 1978, though they were

distantly related and had lived in the same commune since 1975.

One night

after work they were summoned with others to the communal kitchen area. Many

feared they would be killed until a Khmer Rouge cadre turned up and revealed the

purpose of the unexpected gathering.

"He said today the Angkar has

ordered you men and women to get married and nobody can refuse an order of

Angkar," Sethi said. Angkar was the term used to refer to all echelons of the

Khmer Rouge revolutionary command structure.

Names of pairings were read

out, the civil servant said, adding: "At that time I wasn't happy because I was

tired, I didn't want to get married. I had no strength and thought only of

food."

His marriage has endured and produced four children, but "since

liberation (by the Vietnamese forces in 1979) of the 54 couples, only two still

remain together, including Sethi and Kannitha.

Hun Sen, a former Khmer

Rouge soldier who lost an eye in combat, was forced to marry his first wife, a

nurse called Lim Simheng, at a mass ceremony for 105 couples in late 1975, an

informed source said.

Disillusioned with Pol Pot's leadership, he escaped

to Vietnam in 1977 and later received reports that his wife was dead.

He

began courting a Khmer woman in Vietnam and the couple were married in Ho Chi

Minh City in 1978, but Hun Sen discovered in February 1979 that Lim Semheng was

still alive.

The mutual agreement with his second wife to get divorced

was a painful one and Hun Sen, who had even given up smiling, wept over the

decision.

But fate has also shone brightly on Hun Sen and the women in

his life. He co-leads the country with Lim Simheng at his side while his

43-year-old ex-wife joined the civil service, married an earlier love and has

three children.

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