While the scope of female participation in the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge is unknown, experts say it is understated
At 14, Tuy Kin was barely a young woman when she joined the Khmer Rouge in 1970.
Ten years later, she was arrested for her involvement in the killing of 300 prisoners at Phnom Penh’s infamous S-21 prison and torture centre – a charge she now denies – and jailed for 18 months.
“Although I served as a soldier of Pol Pot, I never killed people,” she told researchers from the Documentary Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam).
It’s unknown how many female cadres like Kin filled the ranks of the ultra-Maoist regime and how big a role they had; however, for the first time, a new research project is trying to shed light on the subject.
“Our hypothesis is that female participation in atrocities in Cambodia has been understated, and in fact ‘swept under the carpet’,” said Dr Suzannah Linton, a visiting fellow at the British Institute of International and Comparative Law in the UK and a lead researcher in the DC-Cam project.
“We are aiming to test this by conducting a scientific and rigorously objective preliminary examination into the matter. “
The study did not, Linton added, intend to “diminish the heinousness and rampant nature of violence against women”.
“The spirit of humanity requires us to recognise that those who have suffered at the hands of women are also victims, and that their situation deserves attention, too,” she said.
DC-Cam, an independent non-profit group that archives data on the Khmer Rouge era, began interviewing women suspected of Khmer Rouge involvement in 1998. Since then, it has collected hundreds of interviews.
But how large of a role did women actually play in the despotic regime?
“Women played a significant role in executive, regional and grassroots levels [of the Khmer Rouge],” said Farina So, a PhD candidate from the University of Massachusetts Lowell and co-lead researcher on the project based in Phnom Penh.
She and Linton are in the process of analysing and archiving the collected interviews, while also continuing to interview subjects. The research will eventually be published as a monograph series.
According to So, despite significant participation in many levels of Democratic Kampuchea’s government, women were generally still barred from the upper echelons of power – Ieng Thirith being a notable exception.
“Women did not have a strong stance at the highest levels of the DK government,” she said.
“Although the KR believed that men and women were capable of performing the same tasks, women were expected to perform their gender roles: supporting [children], nurturing and procreating,” she said, adding that women were still able to attain positions of power at the provincial and regional levels.
DC-Cam executive director Youk Chhang said that before the Khmer Rouge seized control of Cambodia in 1975, girls and women were generally assigned to behind-the-scenes tasks in the guerrilla force: medical work, communal upkeep and the transport of weapons, supplies and food to male soldiers at the frontline. But gradually, said Chhang, they were assigned greater roles.
“By the end of 1978, women appeared to have access to all [in the regime],” said Chhang.
When the Khmer Rouge fell in 1979, the Southwest Zone was home to the country’s most powerful military force at that time, which included a unit made up entirely of women, he said.
For Chhang, a Khmer Rouge survivor, the project strikes close to home.
During the later years of the Khmer Rouge, Chhang said that his village was controlled by a brutal trio of young female cadres.
“If you looked at them first-hand, they looked like normal girls – your daughter, your sister – but if you came close, you saw evil.”
Chhang estimated that when he first arrived to Trapeang Veng village in Battambang province in 1975 there were about 1,000 families. By 1979, there were only 100.
“Who did this? Who took us away to be executed? Who starved us? Who forced us to work?
The answer was that it was done by these three young women,” he said.
Ros Sopheap, founder and director of Gender and Development for Cambodia, an NGO that focuses on gender issues, welcomed the DC-Cam study.
“If the study is looking at the role of women during the Khmer Rouge, I would appreciate to know about this,” she said.
“I feel that this is something we used to talk about, but now we only look at the role of men.”
Trude Jacobsen, whose book Lost Goddesses: Denial of Female Power in Cambodian History remains one of the few to focus critically on the role of women throughout Khmer history, saw much value in the DC-Cam study.
“Research that results in evidence that women – young, unmarried women at that – inflicted violence, fought on the frontlines alongside men, and were as ideologically zealous as their male counterparts will disrupt the notion that Cambodian women are somehow inherently inclined toward timidity and subservience,” she said.
Despite being “hardly insignificant”, female participation in mass atrocity remained an understudied topic within academia, according to Linton.
“Women taking part in group or political violence is nothing new, even if it is not as prevalent as male violence.
[But] we do not have an accurate global picture of the extent to which women have been engaged in international crimes,” she said.
Linton hopes the DC-Cam study will change that.
“We believe that in the interests of truth and intellectual honesty, this matter of women who commit international crimes in Cambodia needs to be considered through rigorous scrutiny,” she said.
A high-level district official who governed over multiple regions under Democratic Kampuchea.
In March, she was charged with crimes against humanity by the ECCC – including extermination, political and ethnic persecution and enslavement – but has yet to stand trial.
The widow of Khmer Rouge senior member Ieng Sary and a former Democratic Kampuchea Minister of Social Affairs.
Thirith was charged in 2009 by the tribunal for crimes against humanity, including the “planning, direction, coordination and ordering of widespread purges ... and the unlawful killing or murder of staff members”.
However, Thirith was declared unfit to stand trial in 2012 due to progressive dementia.