During interviews and through our research, the times of the Khmer Rouge have come back relentlessly. A dark period of Cambodian history that still defines the state of the country today, both economically and socially.
A dark past
In the late 60’s, Cambodia experienced periods of instability due to the influence of war between Vietnam and the US. A US-backed coup d’état in 1970, which put Lon Nol forces in power against the former king Norodom Sihanouk, sparked a civil war against those backing the former government, including the Khmer Rouge. Khmer Rouge forces took Phnom Penh in 1975 declaring the end of the war and the beginning of “Democratic Kampuchea”. Residents of Phnom Penh were then forced out of the city to the countryside. All institutions were abolished (including education and religion) as well as private ownership and unapproved relationships. The population was sent farming to the countryside in order to support the goals of the regime. The people of Cambodia suffered deprivation of food and basic necessities and were stripped of their basic human rights. Anyone identified as supporting the former “way of life” was systematically executed and the ethnic and religious minorities were persecuted. Most of the population endured forced transfer, forced labor, forced marriage and systematic violence. Most historians estimate that around 1,7 million people died from execution, torture, starvation and forced labor, before the Vietnamese marched into Phnom Penh in 1979, starting another civil war.
The occupation of Cambodia by the Vietnamese forces lasted 10 years, while the UN still recognized the Khmer Rouge regime as Cambodia’s legitimate government in an attempt to undermine communist Vietnam. The civil war ended in 1991 with the Paris Peace agreement.
Addressing gender based violence: a delayed issue
Some say that, during that time, gender was not an issue as Khmer Rouge claimed that women and men were equal: they worked, suffered and “just survived” together (see the interview of Sinath and of Pal Kana). According to others, the systematic execution of the intelligentsia has shaped the state of gender norms today (See the interview of Kimleng).
Gender Based Violence (GBV) during the Khmer Rouge regime had never been directly addressed until the project “Women and Transitional Justice” was created in 2011. This project, led by the Victim Support branch of the ECCC, the Cambodian Defender’s Project (CDP) and the Transcultural Psychosocial Organization (TPO) started providing support to victims of GBV including forced marriage, domestic violence and rape. They have created an online platform ensuring the involvement of survivors of GBV in the transitional justice process.
If this issue had not been tackled before, it is partly because victims of GBV are often silenced. Speaking out, especially about rape, puts survivors at risk of being blamed and stigmatized, and sometimes even means bringing shame to one’s family (see article on the Chbab Srey). Indeed, a woman’s purity is highly valued in the Cambodian society (see Kimleng’s interview). According to TPO, some women are still in denial and some refuse to speak up out of fear of being stigmatized and thus refuse to file an official complaint.
Furthermore, victims of rape were often killed, meaning that there aren’t a lot of survivors to testify that this practice was indeed quite common. It was also often used as a punishment for Khmer Rouge female soldiers. If the Khmer Rouge claimed that men and women were treated equally, it appears that, like in many other conflicts around the world, they were actually using rape as a weapon of war.
Forced marriages were a common event during this period and mass wedding ceremonies took place all across Cambodia. Many people were arbitrarily paired and had to choose between getting married or face execution. Many women were forced to have sex on their wedding night in order to avoid execution and had to procreate to preserve a “pure” Khmer heritage. When women refused to have sex, they were usually raped by their husbands or by higher-ranking officers as punishment.
Forced marriages are the only element related to GBV that has been addressed by the Khmer Rouge Tribunal. But according to some investigations, rape outside of forced marriage was not a rare occurrence; yet, the court will not investigate these crimes. The Khmer Rouge leaders brought to trial have argued that these acts were perpetrated by isolated individuals and were not part of the Khmer Rouge policy.
With dangerous consequences
GBV still fails to be taken as a serious topic, leading to a lack of in-depth research on the prevalence of such violence during the Khmer Rouge era. NGOs are now addressing it by conducting women’s hearing and by creating platforms for them to share their stories, as the perpetrators will not be formally prosecuted within the framework of the Khmer Rouge Tribunal.
What also lacks is addressing today’s consequences of such violence as well as the needs of the survivors. According to the “Women and Transitional Justice in Cambodia” project: “Harmful conduct in conflict that is not corrected can be normalized in a post conflict society. Violent and harmful practices affecting women during the Khmer Rouge era, such as forced marriage and rape can create a hostile precedent that if not corrected can seep into the mainstream of modern day Cambodia.”
Indeed, Cambodia struggles with a high rate of GBV, 22% of women report that they have experienced violence by a male partner. The issue of rape in Cambodia is still rarely addressed and the few cases brought to the justice hardly ever end in prosecutions, as the shame often lies on the woman. Marital rape is a concept rarely heard of in Cambodia. The risk of such impunity is to see those behaviors becoming normalized (See the article on gang rape in Cambodia).
The combination of a strong cultural norm encouraging silence (see article on Chbab Srey) and the heritage of such violence with impunity are some of the elements fostering a very dangerous environment for women and underline the need to break the culture of silence.
Women and Transitional Justice:
Phnom Penh Post:
News Deeply/women and girls:
Partners For Prevention:
 Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia – created in 2006 to prosecute Khmer Rouge officials accused of human rights violations