The Sexual Abuse Of Cambodia's History Is No Longer Invisible

For decades the terrible crimes perpetrated against women under the Khmer Rouge were hidden from view. BuzzFeed News' Jina Moore talked to the victims of the dictatorial regime who are now getting their day in court.

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — In the early days of the new regime, Chan Phay lived a mostly normal life. By 1975, the Khmer Rouge had taken control of Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, and begusn driving out its residents. The new leaders were hardened Communists, determined to reform their people’s materialism by driving them from the city and forcing them into physical labor. But Chan and her husband were far from the capital, unsullied by modernity. They ran a small business, selling pigs and chickens, that kept them housed and fed. They were young — Chan was 20 — and the couple didn’t have any children, or any special education. They existed, modestly, happily.

But then things changed. "One day, it was fine," she remembered. "The next day, it's like this: We cannot earn money any more. We cannot cook in our homes, just go and cook out all together. They took away our chickens and pigs and cows. They took everything, even the gold. I didn't want to give it to them. I wanted to fight them! But they had guns, and grenades, different kinds of grenades, the big ones, like a jackfruit."

What Chan couldn’t know was that the Khmer Rouge had already slaughtered thousands of Cambodians — doctors, teachers, lawyers, anyone with education. Intellectuals were cast as traitors in the new Cambodia, which the Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot wanted to drag back to “year zero.” In less than four years, he and his senior leadership would murder 2 million Cambodians, a quarter of the country’s population, many of them at mass execution sites known as the “killing fields.” Pol Pot killed anyone who didn’t fit his plan for a perfect society, a social utopia without inequalities.

Thirty years later, most of what was done in that “utopia” would be tried as a crime. Pol Pot died in 1997, but several of his most senior leaders face war crimes charges at an United Nations–backed tribunal that opened in Phnom Penh in 2005. Prosecutors and court investigators have spent a decade amassing evidence of torture and murder in prisons, of forced relocations and forced labor all around the country, of genocide against minorities.

But the legal investigators, like so many historians before them, largely missed one of the most common crimes of the Khmer Rouge, the crime that would come to define the lives of women like Chan: sexual violence.

When the Khmer Rouge flexed its muscles in her small village in northwest Cambodia, all Chan knew was that the soldiers wanted her gold. They took what they wanted, and they separated her and her husband, shipping them off to different work sites. Surrounded by strangers, and worked to exhaustion, Cambodians lived and died by the will of angkar, an abstract word that translates as "the organization." Most Cambodians didn't know who was in charge of the country. Their leader was angkar, a nameless, faceless idea meant to instill obedience through fear.

While they were separated, Chan and her husband tried to keep up with each other's news secretly, through friends. Every 10 days or so, she'd get to go to her home village. She didn't have a house any more — they'd taken that too — but she and her husband would find a place to string up a hammock and rest. In the mornings they'd be sent to work, and in the afternoons they could meet at lunch.

"One day, during lunchtime, I went to have lunch and, just like that, I don't see my husband," Chan said. "I tried to look for him, and one man told me, he was brought by the Khmer Rouge and killed. He said I shouldn't look for my husband anymore," she said.

When that happened — when the Khmer Rouge killed your family — you weren’t supposed to cry. But Chan began to scream.

"I shouted that if they brought my husband to kill him, they should also bring me and kill me. I didn't have any more family; I only had him," she said.

Then someone came and told Chan there was a man who wanted to marry her. He was called Poa, and he was in charge of her husband's work group, a feared leader locally. She was told that Poa loved her. "I didn't know since when he feels that," she said. But she understood why her husband had been killed.

Chan refused to marry Poa. She'd loved her husband, and she would never be with the man who had him killed. But even with all the cruelty she had witnessed, she couldn't have imagined what would happen next.

The same day she refused Poa, some Khmer Rouge took her to a schoolhouse that was built on a pagoda. They took away her clothes and left her wearing only her bra. They chained her arms to the wall and her feet to the floor; her body felt like a captured letter X. Then Poa appeared, and he raped her.

"They would rape us randomly, and no one can help each other. We just look at each other." 

Poa came for her every day. He was always first, but another dozen or more soldiers would follow. Chan remembered that some were so young their guns dragged on the ground as they walked. There were around 30 women chained up with her, she remembered, some of them already married as she had been, some single. The soldiers would unchain the women's legs, and some soldiers would drag a girl away, to another part of the building, and tell others to rape her, too. Over there, sometimes, they used bamboo sticks. Other times, when they were finished, they poured gasoline on a girl and burned her alive.

"They would rape us randomly, and no one can help each other. We just look at each other," Chan remembered.

For the rest of the time, they kept the women chained up, even when they ate. They slurped their food out of hollowed bamboo. "There was rice, and morning glory leaves, a plant that people don't eat — [it’s] not a human vegetable — and we had to lean over and eat from this bamboo trough," she remembered. "It was like feeding a pig."

There was a man, an ordinary civilian, who sold food to the soldiers in charge at the makeshift prison. When Chan heard him come by, she'd plead for help. He would drip water into her mouth or, sometimes, drop a small piece of meat between her teeth. Sometimes he'd mix the water with sugar, just to get her calories. He didn't know her, and she's not entirely sure why he showed her pity. "I would cry and complain," she said. "But so would the others. We all cried. But I was louder."

Chan realized that he was the only person in the world who might be able to get her out of there before the Khmer Rouge murdered her, as they'd done to so many other women they'd used up. She didn't even know if it were possible; she'd never seen a woman released. She'd only watched women die in their chains, sometimes left there for a few days before their bodies were removed. "Then they'd bring in new girls," she said. "It was just changing new ones for the dead ones."

Chan didn’t know how much longer she’d survive that place. She had no idea how long she’d been there, but it must’ve been at least several months. She guessed by her growing belly: At some point, she’d become pregnant, and it was starting to show.

So Chan pled hard with the food vendor, and he agreed to give it a try. He went to Poa and offered him gold in exchange for Chan. He promised to care for her, to clean her up and make her strong and healthy and beautiful again. And then, he lied, he'd bring her back.

Poa agreed. He took the gold, and he let Chan go. "You didn't agree to marry me," she remembered him saying before she was released, "but I still had you."

Raping women in wartime is as old as war itself. But for decades, the sexual violence perpetrated against thousands of women during the Khmer Rouge regime has been largely invisible. In some ways, this isn’t unusual: The violation is so intimate, and transgresses so many personal and cultural boundaries, that survivors’ stories often take years or decades to emerge. But in Cambodia, the kind of sexual violence forced upon thousands of women remained invisible mostly because it was misunderstood — not as rape, but as marriage.

Sorting out that confusion became a defining fight for Silke Studzinsky, a German attorney at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), a joint tribunal set up in 2005 between the Cambodian government and the United Nations. Cambodia follows a civil law system, which means that the victims of a crime, known as “civil parties,” get their own lawyer and participate in the court’s proceedings. Studzinsky was the first civil party lawyer, and the first person, as far as she could tell when she arrived in 2008, ever to raise the idea of investigating sexual violence.

Sexual violence was invisible at the court for two reasons: The Khmer Rouge had a rule against rape, which led prosecutors to assume that stories like Chan’s were an exception the government punished, not a policy it used to instill fear. And the Khmer Rouge, and the historians that later wrote about the period, never made explicit what the angkar’s “arranged marriages” were all about.

But Studzinsky, who had worked on women’s issues in the past, understood the real crime buried by bureaucratic language. “Organized marriage, what does it mean?” Studzinsky said. “Two people are married for the purpose of sexual intercourse. But what happens in that moment? What is this?”

She saw only one possible conclusion.

"This is rape," she said. "This is exactly a sexual crime. So why does no one consider it a crime?"

When Studzinsky met the prosecutors and the investigating judges at the ECCC, she asked them if they were going to investigate sexual violence. “They said, ‘No, because we don’t have any evidence of it,’” she remembered.

Studzinsky knew that investigators would never find evidence of crimes they didn’t ask about, especially in sensitive cases like sexual violence, and the case files clearly told Studzinsky that court investigators weren't asking.

But Studzinsky could see hints of this crime in files. Even a mention, in the course of an interview about something else, that someone had gotten married was a starting point. She went back and reinterviewed some of the same victims the court had already talked to, and as she began building civil party case files, she explicitly asked about forced marriage and about sexual violence.

This didn’t win her many friends. Other lawyers who served at the ECCC at that time say her zeal for the cause alienated prosecutors and judges at the court. But nobody could dispute the role she played in getting forced marriage recognized. “Single-handedly, those charges came down to her,” Brianne McGonigle Leyh, who also served in the civil party lawyers section at the ECCC, remembered. “She pushed and pushed and pushed.”

"In 2008, my starting point was zero," Studzinsky said. Today, 673 men and women are civil parties to the criminal case that’s trying two men for forced marriage. This year, the court heard for the first time in its trial proceedings from a survivor of the crime.

In Cambodia today, weddings are grand affairs. Intricate flower arrangements crown doorways. Brides drip with gold and glam. Cameras flash; traditional music blares. Reception tents arch across streets, cutting off traffic without apology.

The hall where Seoung Chanthor married, at the height of the Khmer Rouge in late 1978, was nothing like that. Seoung was one among thousands of Cambodia’s forced brides, brought to a plain meeting hall for a marriage that had been arranged without her knowledge or consent. She wore her everyday black clothes, just like the other six brides in the group ceremony. There was nothing on the walls, nothing on the floor, nothing in the women’s hair. No one’s family was there. “You are the child of angkar,” she remembered the Khmer Rouge leaders said at the ceremony. “We won’t be inviting your mother to this wedding.”

The only gesture to ritual was a small bowl, filled with water and tiny yellow flowers, on the floor. If these had been normal times in Cambodia, the bowl would have borne bright white jasmine flowers — a common offering to Buddha — with a scent that would send you soaring. In normal times, though, Seoung wouldn’t have been a bride at all.

She was only 17, and she was uninterested in marriage — scared, even, of men. When she saw one, she remembered the warnings of the old people in her village: Don’t let men touch you, or you’ll end up pregnant. She took them literally. “I tried to stay as far away from men as possible,” she recalled, “so they couldn’t bump my skin.”

Standing in the wedding hall, Seoung knew that the only purpose of this marriage was pregnancy. “They killed so many people,” she said, “but they forced you to have children.” For Seoung, it was a mystifying part of the movement’s ideology. “To build a new society,” one party slogan went, “there must be new people.” Most Cambodians would be “reformed” through work, but real revolution would also require babies.

Sex was the last thing the Khmer Rouge spoke about during Seoung’s wedding, she remembered: “You have to get along well with each other.” Everyone in the room understood the meaning: You have to have sex. “If you don’t get along,” Seoung remembered the leader saying, “we’ll bring you for re-education. Once or twice, but if there’s a third time, for sure you will be killed.”

The Khmer Rouge made sure it knew whether a new couple fulfilled their social duty. Just after her wedding, Seoung saw two Khmer Rouge soldiers hiding beneath a house nearby. Inside, there was another couple from the wedding hall. The soldiers’ job was to wait there until they heard the sounds of sex — or the sounds of women resisting sex. “If there was some fight,” Seoung said, “they would report it.” If they didn’t hear anything, they’d check in with the groom the next day and ask whether he’d been satisfied.

Seoung watched the two soldiers spy on the couple, until she too had to go inside and be a married woman. She was terrified. But her husband invited her to sleep next to him in an open room with his family. “I felt relieved, even happy,” Seuong said. “Nothing can happen if everyone is there together.”

Im Ban Cheng knew Seoung was shy, and he wanted to respect that. But they had to work together to deceive the Khmer Rouge into thinking their forced marriage had succeeded in its goal. He remembered telling Seoung that this is how it would be: “We’ll live together, and we’ll let them think we’re sleeping together. You’ll keep silent and act like we’re living just as any other couple, and I’ll do the same.” The lie required only his silence — as long as her husband didn’t complain, she should be safe.

When human rights specialists talk about sexual and gender-based violence, the usual assumption, not always voiced, is that the victims are women. But forced marriage in Cambodia was perpetrated against men, too. In fact, roughly 40% of the court’s work is with men. “I remember when we were doing first the interviews,” said Eleonor Fernandez, a legal officer for the civil parties at the ECCC, “men were saying, ‘Yeah, but I’m also a victim. I was also not happy with the woman I was married to, or am still married to.’” Men turned up at court hearings and at public programs, including the “women’s hearings” organized by local NGOs to share survivors’ testimony, to tell their stories as forced-marriage victims.

That doesn’t mean forced marriage was the same experience for both of them. Neither men nor women had much choice about getting married, but men had a lot of choice about what happened afterward. Some men exploited their status as husbands and raped unwilling wives; others, like Im Ban, felt compassion for the women, and for themselves, two people who never wanted to be in such a situation.

Unlike women, men sometimes had a choice — or a kind of choice — about whom they married. Im Ban, Seoung’s husband, remembered the Khmer Rouge telling him, “You can pick the woman you know, and if you cannot choose one, we will chose for you.”

Other men interviewed by ECCC lawyers felt compelled to have sex with their wives, even though neither of them wanted to. And that’s now a legal conundrum: Who is legally accountable for coerced sex when the coercing party wasn’t even in the room?

“Is that rape, or is it not rape, if both parties are being compelled?” Fernandez asked. “Is it rape by a third person, because [that person] is telling them they have to have sexual intercourse?”

But getting the ECCC to understand the force of a forced marriage took imagination, and it took lobbying: In 2010, two years after Studzinsky first asked her colleagues about investigating sexual violence, prosecutors finally charged senior Khmer Rouge leaders with forced marriage. That trial began in January.

But no one has so far succeeded in getting the court issue rape charges against the defendants. Because the regime had a law against rape, the ECCC thinks the Khmer Rouge punished men who raped, or at the very least, didn’t condone it or use it as a tool of terror.

Recent research, however, doesn’t support that view. In a 2011 study of gender violence under the Khmer Rouge, by a civil society group called the Cambodian Defenders Project, the majority of interviewees had witnessed or heard stories of rape; the study also found that few of the perpetrators — mostly “male agents of the Khmer Rouge regime” using violence for official purposes — were ever punished.

The ECCC may slowly be coming around to a new view, as well. Salim Nakhjavani, then an assistant co-prosecutor at the court, told BuzzFeed News in January that civil party testimonies, and the slew of research that’s been taken up since Studzinsky first pushed the issue years ago, are beginning to change the view that the Khmer Rouge should be taken at their word for their dedication to protecting women.

"It was a regime that characterized itself as very, very austere and morally upright," Nakhjavani said. "It upheld [a]s standard of morality which we now realize was yet another expression of its duplicity."

Nakhjavani said the prosecutor’s office had been investigating sexual violence allegations against defendants in the court’s final two cases. The defendants were formally charged with war crimes in March, but there were no gender violence charges. In late April, the prosecutor’s office requested permission for supplemental sexual violence investigations, citing new evidence. Prosecutors declined to provide further details, citing the court’s confidentiality regulations.

Most of these legal arguments are theoretical, and will get hammered out in the cumbersome technical language of international law. But Chan Phay, who is 64 today, lives daily with her own truth. She has blinding headaches, pain that makes her feel like her eyes are on fire. She forgets things other people her age remember, important things like where she hid her money. When a ripe papaya falls from a palm, she jumps: "It is the sound of their feet," she says, of the gangs who came to rape her. Lately, she’s tortured by this question: Is my oldest son the child of the husband I loved, or of the Khmer Rouge leader who raped me when I refused him?

She'll never know, and nothing that happens in a courtroom in far-off Phnom Penh will change that.

There’s very little, in fact, that the court can really offer survivors of the Khmer Rouge. Its justice is sluggish, slowed by the ailing health of the old men it wants to try, and by the scale of their violence: Nearly the entire country is a crime scene.

The court indicted three defendants (one of whom has since died) with forced marriage in 2010, but it’s only this year that the case has moved to court. The first survivor’s testimony was cut short by one defendant’s poor health. "He needs to relax this afternoon session," a judge told the court. The small, aging woman who had been reading from a secret diary she’d kept during the Khmer Rouge would have to come back the next day and “stand by,” as the judge put it, to see if there was any time to squeeze in the rest of her story.

It’s a common critique of international tribunals, from Rwanda to Sierra Leone to Cambodia, that the alleged perpetrators are better cared for than their victims, who live, by the thousands, in poverty back home. Thanks to a host of international standards, war crimes defendants are entitled to sleep fairly comfortably, don’t miss meals, and have access to medical care.

There’s very little the court can really offer survivors of the Khmer Rouge

This concern for the alleged perpetrators confuses survivor Prak Sinan, 61, who is also a civil party in the forced marriage case. "The lawyers for the accused know everything about the condition of the accused — how many days the accused is ill or needs treatment, what he needs to speak before the court. And they get treatment as soon as possible," she said. "But our civil party lawyer has never brought the issue of our sickness. I have heard that more than 60 civil parties have died! What of our suffering? What do we need, as plaintiffs, to come before the court?" (The ECCC did not provide an official tally of civil party deaths by press time.)

There's a lot about these trials that Prak considers a charade. But the thing that most agitates her is the way the court has handled reparations. The ECCC promises victims "collective and moral reparations,” but from the outset, the court has refused to consider reparations to individuals — or even monetary reparations to groups. It’s the first time any international court has used the phrase “collective and moral reparations,” and with each case, the ECCC chooses what that means. So far, the court has endorsed writing school curricula, publishing a "booklet of facts" about the case and including the names of the civil parties on its own website as a "collective reparation." This doesn’t interest Prak. “I’m too old to read,” she said.

The court also suggested a national memorial stupa (a Buddhist temple) for victims in its most recent case. But there are already national monuments and memorial sites in Phnom Penh, and many survivors say they don't have the money to perform the rituals for their dead relatives at stupas that already exist. The court also endorsed a national day of remembrance for the victims, which Prak finds absurd. "I'm a farmer. I don't need a day off. I still [have to] to look after my plants and my rice paddies," Prak said. "I don't want [a holiday]. Not at all. A national holiday is just exploiting the civil parties' struggle, because only [others] can relax and travel around on that day. They [created] a national holiday, but it did not create any benefit for us. The benefit goes to them."

What she'd rather see is something that acknowledges, with deeds, what the court has already admitted in its own words: "[T]he Civil Parties and a very large number of additional victims have suffered immeasurable harm," including “economic losses.” But no one from the court or the government is talking to Prak about compensating her for the house and the land her family lost, or the gold and gemstone heirlooms the Khmer Rouge stole.

Prak thinks the court has exploited the civil parties. The court takes evidence — and moral authority — from their personal histories, but it gives them nothing meaningful in return. She says she's not going to stand for it much longer. "It's not a threat, but I want to say to the United Nations and the [Cambodian] government, that if they keep ignoring us and abandoning us like this, one day we will go to withdraw our complaint from the ECCC."

She's not alone. In October, about 200 people who've joined the proceedings as parties protested at the court, demanding financial reparations. They asked for $13,500 for each of their dead relatives — the same amount of money the Cambodian government paid to the families of those killed in a stampede during the annual Water Festival in 2010.

But there's no sum of money, no amount of physical or psychological care, no number of garlands laid at the feet of the Buddha that can repair the spiritual or cultural or psychological wounds of crimes committed against Prak, or Chan, or Seoung. And individual men who victimized them are unlikely ever to appear in a courtroom: The ECCC is set up to try only the senior leadership of the Khmer Rouge. Its lower-level officers go free.

That angers Ouk Him, a 71-year-old woman who was forced to marry after her husband was killed by the Khmer Rouge. In order to pursue justice for the masterminds, the court has effectively let the lower-level Khmer Rouge members off the hook. "Nowadays, they just act like the boss again," Ouk said.

There’s little that Ouk or other civil parties can do about that, or about many of the other limitations of justice. Most probably won't withdraw their participation in the trial, and most probably won't join protests for financial reparations. They are old now, and they are still busy fishing and farming and watching over children and grandchildren. Most don't have much energy to champion justice.

But there is one thing they have the power not to do, one thing Ouk Him holds close: "We will never pardon them."