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
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
"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
"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.
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
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.
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
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
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