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New Series Gives Voice to KR Victims

Safiya Charles / Khmer Times Share:
A Khmer Rouge victim giving testimony in the court known as the Khmer Rouge tribunal. KT/Chor Sokunthea

From the start of the Khmer Rouge tribunal, it was a fight. A fight to have their voices heard, their stories believed, their cases tried.
 
For the victims of forced marriage and sexual and gender-based violence under the Khmer Rouge, life in the years since 1975 has been a struggle.
 
Now a six-part documentary series to air in Cambodia next month will broadcast their stories across the nation.
 
“Time to Speak Out” chronicles the lasting pain and suffering endured by countless survivors of sexual- and gender-based violence under the genocidal regime which held the country in a stranglehold until 1979.
 
The televised series, funded by the British embassy, will air on MyTV and CTN following Case 002/02 against former senior Khmer Rouge leaders Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea, who are now being prosecuted in the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC).
 
“The idea is to try to give a clear understanding to the audience of the issues and what’s at stake at the court,” said series producer Olivier van Bockstael.
 
The series, which started production in 2008, will attempt to translate the court’s complicated legal proceedings into laymen’s terms, simplify the court’s proceedings for the general public and explain why crimes like forced marriage are rightfully labeled as crimes against humanity.
 
“He had a pistol. I was afraid so I let him rape me,” one woman painfully recounts to interviewers.
 
An elderly woman tells a gruesome tale of witnessing a fellow female prisoner tortured and sexually assaulted with a metal pipe held under a flame until it was burning hot.
 
Another describes the feeling of what she calls “being crucified” as her hands were nailed to the ground before she was brutally raped, all because she dared to fight off her attackers – cadres in the Khmer Rouge.
 
It was once falsely believed that rape did not exist under the Khmer Rouge regime as its policy included “12 Codes of Conduct of the Combatants.” Within those rules, sex outside of marriage was fiercely outlawed and punishable by death.
 
The ECCC’s Office of the Co-investigating Judges used this logic during preliminary investigations to exclude rape and gender-based crimes from the charges to be levied against the former leaders. In 1975, rape was also not considered to fall under crimes against humanity. That has since changed.
 
“The challenge in regard to national leadership [of the Communist Party of Kampuchea] is that there was allegedly a policy by the national leadership to punish this behavior,” said Lars Olsen, Legal Communications Officer in the Public Affairs Section of the ECCC.
 
“Obviously you can still be held criminally liable for what subordinates do, if they don’t conform with that policy, but as a minimum requirement if you’re going to be held liable for that you have to have had knowledge that your orders and your policy decisions were not being followed.”
 
According to survivors, sexual and gender-based violence did in fact occur, and heinously. Most victims were murdered not long after being brutalized.
 
Depression, anxiety, loneliness – some survivors still complain of physical pain like headaches, tight muscles, painful and bloody urination – all remnants of the horrors delivered in sacrifice to the Angkar, the all-knowing “big brother” invented by the authoritarian leaders to assert their power over the population.
 
The macabre details of sexual violence and humiliation differ, but the insistence remains the same. Although quantitative data does not exist, the stories are present in every corner of the nation.
 
Forced marriage, one of the most common crimes, was a well known procedure instituted by the Khmer Rouge. For those who dared to protest at a marriage ordained by the Angkar, their alternative was death.
 
Mass wedding ceremonies of 50 or more arranged “couples” were commonplace and a concerted effort to increase the fledging nation’s population.
 
In the series’ first episode which defines the meaning of forced marriage and attempts to explain why it is considered a crime against humanity, male victim Em Oeun recounts the early days of his new marriage without happiness or fondness, testifying to the ECCC that he and his new bride spent each night together in tears – both unhappy and neither in love with the other.
 
In another instance, a victim tells of the Khmer Rouge unit chiefs’ cruelty in matchmaking, often pairing “pretty girls with ugly men” or the “uneducated with the educated” in an ultimate exercise of power.
 
“One of the most unique things about this crime here in Cambodia, as opposed to other countries, is that it involved both men and women…having the court and this outreach allows [victims] to understand why [forced marriage] was a crime and how it was different from traditional Khmer arranged marriages,” said Theresa de Langis, a senior expert on women’s human rights in conflict and post-conflict settings.
 
“I think that’s going to raise some interesting conversations and hopefully healing.”
 
For the surviving victims, justice is vital but the chance to tell their stories is equally as important. Social stigma, shame and anguish have kept many women and men in the shadows, suffering in silence with severe psychological trauma.
 
But with age and the support of local NGOs, many are beginning to find a voice as well as to understand the importance of unearthing their painful memories and speaking to a new generation of Cambodians.
 
“It was hard to hear sometimes…but I feel very different after hearing them say those words themselves. Life must have been very difficult trying to cope with these [crimes]…and I really admire [these women]. It made me question if my relatives or my parents had ever experienced that,” said Sievlan Len, a third-year student at American University.

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