For years after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, the issue of forced marriage remained understudied, misunderstood and taboo. Now interviews with researchers, lawyers and survivors suggest that is changing – marked by a new exhibition at Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
A among the Khmer Rouge’s many crimes, one of its most insidious was the nationwide policy of forced marriage – a strategy designed both to break down its victims psychologically and to supply the state with a new population of workers.
There are no reliable statistics on how many couples were forced to marry. Only one photograph of a forced-marriage ceremony – a union between two Khmer Rouge cadres – is known to exist.
But in present-day Cambodia, the effects of the marriages are still far-reaching, and multigenerational.
“It was a widespread policy,” explained Farina So, a researcher at DC-Cam. “It didn’t take place in one area. It happened everywhere.”
Marriages frequently involved violent rape under the threat of punishment from cadres, who spied on couples on the first night, So said. The trauma was long lasting, and women especially were reluctant to speak about it.
In 2013, an independent researcher, Theresa de Langis, began recording Cambodian women’s stories as part of a larger project on sexual violence under the Khmer Rouge regime, the Cambodian Women’s Oral History Project. She was often struck by forced-marriage narratives in particular.
“The stories are not easy stories, and they are not typical stories,” De Langis said. “They are very distinct.”
Oral history, she said, provided a unique means to capture them in survivors’ own words and on their own terms – a contribution of personal narrative to expand upon the “accepted history” of the genocide.
Through this work, De Langis was brought on as a technical adviser at Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, training its staff in oral-history methodology. Next week, 21 of her interviews will be deposited in the museum’s collections, for researchers and future generations.
At the same time, seven stories of forced marriage will go on public exhibition at Tuol Sleng – the first of its kind in the Kingdom, both in topic and in execution.
Focusing on the impact on women
The exhibition, Sorrows and Struggles: Women’s Experience of Forced Marriage during the Khmer Rouge Regime, was not initially part of Tuol Sleng’s schedule for 2016, according to museum director Chhay Visoth.
The idea emerged from a meeting last September with the Women’s Association of the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, spurring a focus on female stories at the museum.
“We really want to focus on the impact to women,” Visoth said in his office one afternoon this week, as his staff scrambled to put the finishing touches on their work.
The lively 37-year-old is still a relatively fresh face at Tuol Sleng – this April will mark his second year as director – but he’s already injected a new energy into the museum.
“Even in this museum, open for more than 30 years already, we didn’t have a strong team conducting [new] research for our exhibitions,” he said. “It’s not easy doing research like this.”
The new exhibition was planned over five months by an 11-person team that included foreign researchers and designers.
For the next six months, Sorrows and Struggles will be housed in two rooms on the third floor of Building A, just above the space reserved for female prisoners under the Khmer Rouge. It is interactive, contrasting with the museum’s permanent displays.
The first room serves as a model of a forced-marriage ceremony: two rows created by hanging fabric run towards a makeshift altar at the front of the room. An empty circle on the floor marks a place for visitors – “So it seems like you’re standing in line,” explained Johanna Quandt, a German designer on the project.
In the neighbouring room stand seven tall boxes bearing the photographs and stories of the survivors, one for each of Democratic Kampuchea’s established zones. The narratives – jarring, violent, and now public – are printed in English and Khmer. Four are drawn from Tuol Sleng’s new set of interviews and three from De Langis’ oral-history project.
The young director already has plans to replicate the methodology for another project, as well as to bring Sorrows and Struggles to classrooms as part of the museum’s mobile-exhibition initiative. Only 3 per cent of Phnom Penh students visited Tuol Sleng last year, he said.
A sea change in attitudes
“Generally speaking, there really has been a sea change in the way that people talk about forced marriage,” De Langis said. “When I was first starting to do this work four years ago, very rarely would people self-disclose.”
Even the research team at Tuol Sleng had limited knowledge of forced marriage when the Sorrows and Struggles project began, she added.
De Langis is not the only one to notice the shifting tide. “It changed in the last two years because people are aware of the issue. Before, they didn’t understand and they felt ashamed to talk,” said Sin Soworn, an attorney with the Cambodian Defenders Project and a civil-party co-lawyer at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC).
Before 2008, this dearth in awareness extended to the international community and to the court, where De Langis alleges that there was a belief that forced marriages were not so different from arranged marriages, just a cultural practice – rather than a human-rights violation.
Female survivors of forced marriage suffered much differently than men, and continue to face social stigma, De Langis said. She attributed the stigma to a pressure to keep trauma hidden, especially if any children were involved, and to gendered codes of conduct, like a focus on female virginity.
Even during the Khmer Rouge regime, “moral offences” – like sex between unmarried couples – could implicate women in cases of rape, according to Farina So, at DC-Cam.
So said that of the 400 interviews conducted by her oral-history team over the years, at least half mention forced marriage, though many do not acknowledge its explicit criminality. “They didn’t get access to full information, especially in the court,” she said. “They were afraid to speak out.”
Museum director Chhay Visoth suggested that a change in discourse has to do with an ageing population of survivors: “In Cambodian culture, when people get old, they want to connect, to share,” he said. “Through the interviews that we did, people talked – it’s not like in the past.”
And with disclosure may come a change in attitude regarding women’s narratives of suffering under the Khmer Rouge. “There’s been a long-held belief that sexual violence was not a part of this genocide,” De Langis said. “Once these stories are fully disclosed, there is no way that can ever stand.”
For survivors’ retribution, where the gradual change may matter most is at the court.
A change to be heard
It is no coincidence that Sorrows and Struggles is to be exhibited in the same year that the ECCC takes up the case of forced marriage as a crime, Visoth said.
In the current trial at the ECCC, Case 02/002, there have been 663 civil parties admitted in relation to the “regulation of marriage”, according to Marie Guiraud, the international civil-party lead co-lawyer. A majority are women.
Testimony will likely begin in June, she wrote in an email to Post Weekend. The list set to testify has not yet been released.
If classified by crime, survivors of forced marriage could comprise one of the largest groups of civil parties, according to Silke Studzinsky, a German lawyer who represented civil parties at the court from 2008 to 2013.
Studzinsky was part of an effort to bring the case of forced marriage to the court as a crime, beginning in 2008, when little research on the subject was available.
In meetings with Studzinsky and her colleagues after the first civil-party applications were submitted late that year, she said, people began to self-disclose their experiences with forced marriage and other sexual violence.
“Nearly everybody knew about forced marriages, as a direct victim or a witness,” Studzinksy said. “But at the beginning, most of the civil parties did not see forced marriage as a crime.”
Studzinsky said her push for further investigation was at first met with “scepticism and a lack of background knowledge” from both the international and national sides of the court.
Nonetheless, the Office of Co-investigating Judges added forced marriages to its investigation in mid-2009. Ultimately, forced marriage was not included in Case 002/01, and sexual violence outside the context of forced marriage was not investigated.
When the scope of the current case was defined, in April 2014, the Trial Chamber included nationwide forced marriage as a crime. The contribution of civil parties was “instrumental” in this decision, Guimaud said.
When they take the stand, those who testify will of course face a very different audience than an interview or a group session offers.
“A specific preparation for the testimony is necessary,” Studzinsky said. Civil parties can work with their own lawyers, Victims’ Support Services and with mental-health experts from the Transcultural Psychosocial Organization (TPO) to prepare.
De Langis worries that accusations of lying on the stand – which has happened when forced marriage has come up in other case testimony – could re-traumatise survivors of sexual violence. “This particular group is a different kind of group that has been silenced for a very long time,” she said.
The reality of forced marriage
Aside from the public displays, the tangible effects of forced marriage, for some, remain a part of daily existence.
One middle-aged couple who spoke with Post Weekend this week by phone, Sa Suth and El Sorlyhush, remain together, living in Tboung Khmum province. They have seven children.
Neither is a civil party at the court, and they knew nothing of an exhibition opening at Tuol Sleng.
Their story is not the only one that did not end in fracture, but it remains “distinct”, as De Langis put it. Suth had another partner at the time of the marriage, but was allowed only to pick from among a group of 10 women. “There was not a big party,” he said.
Sorlyhush said she was afraid of Suth, and of living with him. After the war, they didn’t at first. Eventually, the two – who remained in the same province, Kampong Cham – began a business together, then a true marriage, one beyond the control of the regime.
The couple have been very open with their children about their story, and even shown them the place where they were forced to marry, Sorlyhush said.
“He had another girl to love,” she said. “He tried to reject Angkar, but the leader told him to marry me.”
The exhibition Sorrows and Struggles, which is funded by GIZ and the Civil Peace Service (CPS), will open at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum with a ceremony on Tuesday, March 1, at 5pm.
Additional reporting by Vandy Muong.