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Weddings under the Khmer Rouge: How has ‘forced’ been decided?

One of many forced weddings that took place under the Khmer Rouge regime
One of many forced weddings that took place under the Khmer Rouge regime. DC-CAM

Weddings under the Khmer Rouge: How has ‘forced’ been decided?

Over the years, I have followed the tracks by which the Extraordinary Chambers in the Court of Cambodia (ECCC) came to name “Forced Marriages and Rape (nationwide)” as an alleged crime in the hearings for Case 002/02 in the second trial against Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea.

The snowballing of the term, “forced marriages”, carries a potency that runs right through interpretations being maintained today. My research on this topic between 1996 and 2006 culminated in a book, Love and Dread in Cambodia: Weddings, Births and Ritual Harm under the Khmer Rouge. I carefully designed my research after realising that I had adopted the term “forced weddings” without having inquired how this term came to be. In early stages, I reviewed the body of literature (by historians, journalists and biographers) that labelled the weddings as forced. I hoped to find an unbiased study that explained and justified the term. I found no such study.

At that time, also, I was working in health development in Cambodia. I spoke casually with colleagues who had been married under Democratic Kampuchea (DK). I heard much about the mutation of ritual meaning and practices by the Khmer Rouge, and the ancestral and spirit aftermath of such tampering and destruction. Most of my Cambodian associates questioned the word “forced” when referring to their weddings. Some told me of Ku Prean, which is a cosmological dynamic where the Buddha arranged their meeting before they were born. Also most Cambodian marriages in these days were not driven by romance and love that is held so dearly in the Euro-American context.

I decided to design my second doctoral study on this topic, knowing it could take me a decade to investigate with integrity. Thus, I did not do a short-term, targeted survey. Rather I studied, intensely, the true nature of the Khmer Rouge activity surrounding weddings and births and was able to map this activity and more.

I realised early on that this topic would one day be fuelled with feminist emotion, and that men’s stories might take a back seat; my extensive sample was almost equally matched of men to women. I designed my study from random and purposive samples. I used an interpreter and then had a second interpreter validate the primary interpreter’s work, while building loops of reliability into my study.

Since my study, I have kept up with research conducted in this area. I find, again and again, that the term “forced marriage” leads the outcomes – including the most recent study on this topic released this week: A Study on the Impact of Forced Marriage under the Khmer Rouge Regime as sponsored by TPO. The title represents the nature of the questions on the survey and direction of the qualitative interviews that were derived from a sample of civil party female survivors.

I did not target a sample of respondents who claimed their weddings were forced. I was most interested in travelling with respondents to places where they lived through many atrocities as place holds memory.

Through those experiences I wanted to understand how men and women (as young people) felt protected from spirit and human harm – then and now. I was able to map how the Khmer Rouge robbed survivors’ imaginations and their access to traditional courtship and births. I do state in my study that people were forced out of courtship and forced out of spirit protection.

For many in my study, there were various ways they were married, which depended to a large extent on the time, places and presiding leaders of the weddings. Being called out to be married was preceded often by being given a Khmer scarf. Over time, the scarf became a new symbol of escaping death.

The wedding was made sad for many by the fact that some of their companions were not given the scarf – and as early as 1975, they instantly knew their fate, and this procedure became a new reified ritual practice.

Thus, the meaning of traditional objects and events was contaminated under DK. Most reported being upset by the lack of a fortune-teller and lack of a “sequenced” celebration with family and villagers according to tradition. By minutely tracking the breakdown of ritual practices and the mutated meaning of objects, I gained evidence to coin the term ritualcide.

By adopting the term “forced” when referring to the weddings, we lose access to understanding more fully the pivotal role that weddings often played in forcing the communist agenda. It was the key activity that led to atrocities the tribunal has yet to name.

I have claimed, controversially, that in the context of the regime and their twisted agenda, people were conscripted or drafted into marriage just as many were drafted into the armed forces. As a medical anthropologist, psychologist and trauma specialist, I am intrigued by the hostility I encounter when I question legal advisers on their use of the term, “forced”, in relation to Khmer Rouge marriages. In fact, I think testimonial-based research on the marriages has undermined documentation of heinous crimes perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge, such as medical experiments that were conducted on pregnant women post marriages.

I have not sided with the legal use or approval of the term, “forced marriages” because of “how” evidence supporting the term has been derived. As a staunch researcher, my study did not come to the conclusion that justifies my using the term in my publications. I think it is essential that any evidence submitted to journals or to courts on the Khmer Rouge marriages be scrutinised on processes and agendas of funding bodies that lead to the conclusions.

Peg LeVine, PhD, EdD, holds adjunct posts at the University of Melbourne (Global and Population Health), and Monash University (Psychiatry). She is the senior research fellow at the Shoah Genocide Foundation at the University of Southern California where she is set to research the Cambodia ritualcide inside the United States.


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