The impact of forced marriage during the Khmer Rouge regime has taken center stage at one of Cambodia’s most notorious sites, with an exhibition opening at the former S-21 prison Tuesday highlighting the practice.
The policy of forcing people to marry in distressingly clinical ceremonies — followed by consummation under threat of execution — appears to have been a countrywide matter under the Khmer Rouge; part of a plan to eradicate the traditional family structures that existed before it took power.
Despite this, the subject has only been addressed over the past few years and is now one of a litany of crimes being heard at the Khmer Rouge tribunal in what is known as Case 002/02.
In a bid to expand the oral history of the practice, staff at S-21 — now a genocide museum — collected the stories of seven survivors of the regime who were subject to forced marriage and other gender-based violence.
The likes of Yum, a 57-year-old woman, came forward.
According to her testimony, she was around 17 when the Khmer Rouge came to power.
In 1978, the year before the regime fell, she was forced to marry a Cham Muslim man.
“I didn’t want to get married, but I dared not refuse,” she says in her testimony on one of the exhibits.
“I was afraid the Khmer Rouge would torture or kill me if I said no.”
Even though she went through with it, “[i]t was only pretend,” she says. “I did not love him.”
Yum and her husband remain together to this day. They have four children and she converted to Islam after the 1979 fall of the regime.
“I feel compassion for him more than love when I remember our suffering and struggling together through the Khmer Rouge,” she says. “As a result, I have stayed with him as husband and wife until now.”
Hers is one of seven stories around which the exhibition has been created.
Two rooms at S-21 — a former primary school that the regime used as a prison to incarcerate, torture and execute many of its own high-ranking officials — have been given over to what is known as the experiential “Sorrow and Struggle of Women: Forced Marriage During the Khmer Rouge Period” exhibition.
The first features a series of heavy gray fabrics that have been imprinted with Khmer and English excerpts from the survivors — one of whom is a man — through which visitors can walk.
At the end of the room, bathed in the light that floods this prison block in the afternoons, a solitary table with two “krama” scarves has been placed, reflecting how the two strangers would have to come together and be joined in such solemn circumstances.
On the wall hangs a black-and-white photograph featuring one such ceremony.
In the adjacent room, seven four-paneled blocks have been set up, featuring the testimonies of the seven survivors.
Theresa de Langis, lead researcher on the Cambodian Women’s Oral History project who provided technical assistance to the collection of stories, told Anadolu Agency on Tuesday that the exhibition is a great opportunity to spread the word about the practice beyond the court.
“In Cambodia, in Phnom Penh, people are paying more attention, but the museum gets a lot of visitors from around the world, and it’s a great opportunity for them to be educating people globally about what these forced marriages entailed, but it’s true that locally, people have not felt comfortable talking about these issues — it’s still not well known,” she said.
Culture Minister Phoeung Sakona told attendees at the launch Tuesday that she herself escaped a potential forced marriage; that after she heard of a male comrade who had taken an interest in her, she did her best to make herself appear unappealing before asking to go to the frontline.
“Fortunately, I escaped,” Sakona said. The exhibition is of importance, she said, because it is contributing to the search for “justice for the many victims of forced marriage” at the tribunal.
Sakona said the impact of the practice hit close to home again when one of her friends was married off to a man who was accused, six months later, of being an enemy of the regime.
Both were taken away and executed.
“My friend hadn’t wanted to marry at that time,” Sakona said. “They had forced her to marry him and now they took her away to kill her after accusing her husband of being a traitor.”
For Yum, hers and other stories are a critical part of understanding the layers of suffering inflicted upon the people of Cambodia under Pol Pot.
“In the past, I tried to hide the story; I did not want my children to hear it or know about it. Now, I don’t feel like that at all,” she says.
“I say, tell the story.”