Raksmey (not her real name) was forced to marry a Khmer Rouge officer, despite already being married to another man, who disappeared during the regime. The collective ceremony lasted just a few minutes, after which she was taken to a room where her new husband was awaiting her, to consummate the marriage.
The woman refused to have sexual relations with him and left the room as soon as she could to seek help from one of the comrades. But the officer, instead of helping her, threatened her with a gun and then raped her as punishment, and to make her agree to live with her new husband.
“There was nothing I could do but grit my teeth and cry, but I dared not make a sound for fear he would kill me,” recounts Raksmey.
“I had never told anyone what had happened to me, but now it’s time to speak out,” she affirms, under a pseudonym, before the ad hoc Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), made up of Cambodian and foreign judges, in charge of trying the crimes of the communist guerrilla.
The court, jointly set up by the Cambodian government and the United Nations (to ensure international standards of justice), but independent of both, has, since 2006, been trying the surviving Khmer Rouge leaders (now octogenarians) for crimes committed during the Khmer Rouge Regime (1975-1979). Since 22 August, its attention has been focused on the forced marriages and rapes within marriages.
Mission: to alienate and increase the population
The Cambodian court had not, until now, heard the testimonies of the thousands of men and women forced to marry, often with strangers, in mass ceremonies with as many as a hundred or more couples.
The forced marriages were part of a campaign to alienate people at the same time as increasing the population, one of the lesser-known aspects of the regime that ruled Cambodia between 1975 and 1979.
Two experts, eight civil parties and three witnesses have been called to testify in this part of the trial, within the framework of Case 002/02 trying the Khmer Rouge’s second-in-command, 88-year-old Nuon Chea, and the head of state of what was known as Democratic Kampuchea, 83-year-old Khieu Samphan.
The Khmer Rouge leader, Pol Pot, died in 1998 without ever having being held to account for his crimes. Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan were already given life sentences in 2014 after being found guilty of crimes against humanity.
In this part of the trial, their alleged complicity in the forced marriage programme is being investigated, as well as their involvement in the genocide perpetrated against Cambodia’s Vietnamese and Cham Muslim minority.
One of the witnesses at the trial, Cambodian Chea Dieb, who was assigned to a female unit at the time of the crimes now being tried, pointed the finger directly at the former head of state, Khieu Samphan, for his role in the forced marriage policy.
“He told us [the group of women I belonged to] that we had to marry to be able to produce more children,” exposes Dieb. At age 19, she was forced to marry a man she had never seen before.
Many men and women had no choice but to accept the imposed marriages. Those who refused to marry “disappeared”, Raksmey told the court.
She gave birth to a daughter before the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime. Both her and her husband fled in opposite directions and did not see each other again until three years later, at the insistence of their respective families.
“I didn’t love him (my husband),” she told the judges.
It is still not known how many people were victims of the forced marriages, although - during the regime lasting almost four years - all men and women aged between 15 and 35 could be selected to take part in the weddings held in virtually every town and village across the country.
Cambodian Ouk Main was one of the women chosen to marry a 29-year-old Khmer Rouge officer when she was just 21.
“Who knows what would have happened to me if I’d refused to marry him. I was afraid, and very angry at the same time. The officers were arrogant and dangerous,” a woman in a wooden hut in the province of Pursat tells Equal Times. The farmer was widowed shortly before the fall of the regime in 1979.
A second witness, Sour Sotheavy, now a transgender woman, said she was forced to marry a woman and was threatened into consummating the marriage. When the defence asked her if the consummation was voluntary, Sotheavy insisted that she had no interest in maintaining sexual relations with the woman with whom she had been paired.
She responded firmly: “If you listen carefully to what I am saying to you, you will understand the nature of a transgender person like myself. I told you, I am not interested in women.”
Women: no more than child bearers and objects of sexual pleasure
In many cases, the spouses-to-be were informed just hours before, by the heads of the camps, who acted as the “matchmakers”. Officers were occasionally allowed to marry the woman of their choice. Their families were not invited to the wedding or consulted about the marriage arrangements.
“The regime’s ideologues thought that people would be more loyal to the state and would yield more to its power in a society with dismantled, detached family links,” Rodrigo Montero, an advisor with the German Development Cooperation Agency, told Equal Times.
When the Khmer Rouge took power in 1975, they completely evacuated the cities, abolished religious practice, private property, money and the judicial system. Families were divided up by age and gender and sent to labour camps, where they had to work from dawn to dusk to meet the inordinate production quotas. At least 1.7 million people are estimated to have died of hunger, disease or execution in the political purges.
The brutal Khmer Rouge Regime used forced marriages as a tool of domination. But it was not the only method.
“The assassinations, beatings, tortures, rapes – often gang rape – blackmail, extortion and threats formed part of everyday life during the regime, which considered women as no more than the bearers and raisers of children loyal to the regime and as pieces of meat available to the leaders and soldiers for their sexual pleasure,” continues Montero, pointing out that the lack of a judicial system and protection placed the victims in a situation of total isolation.
Rapes were also perpetrated outside the forced marriages during the regime, but their investigation has been excluded for now, as they are “not considered to be a policy of the Khmer Rouge,” Sarath Young, project manager within the court’s victim support section, tells Equal Times. The hearings are expected to continue until the end of September.