PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Until now, sexual violence against ethnic minorities during the Khmer Rouge era in this country went largely ignored. Now for the first time, the Cambodian Defenders Project, one of the oldest legal aid organizations here, has published first-person accounts of interviews with 105 men and women from ethnic Vietnamese, Khmer Krom, Khmer Islam and Cham Muslim groups, revealing sexual attacks against them that were carried out by the Khmer Rouge regime from 1975 to 1979.
The study, titled “Sexual Violence Against Ethnic Minorities During the Khmer Rouge Regime,” written by Rochelle Braaf, the lead researcher for the Cambodian Defenders Project and an Australian expert in gender-based violence, presents a vivid picture of the Khmer Rouge’s policy to marginalize and destroy ethnic minorities, including through impregnating women so they would give birth to children of mixed ethnicity.
The violence committed by the Khmer Rouge, a shadowy and much-feared organization led by Pol Pot, who controlled the country with a handful of fellow comrades from the Communist Party of Kampuchea, left approximately two million people dead through executions, forced labor, disease and the persecution of primarily the most educated people.
Some Khmer Rouge leaders have since been put on trial for war crimes by the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, a joint United Nations and government tribunal established in 2006. (Pol Pot died in 1998.) The administrator of the infamous Tuol Sleng prison has been sentenced, but otherwise no top official has been sentenced yet.
The crimes apparently committed by the Khmer Rouge against the country’s ethnic minorities have not been an active aspect of the trials so far.
The new study reveals widespread rape of ethnic minority women and girls by predominantly Khmer Rouge male cadre, often as gang rapes. In most cases, the victims were executed afterwards. Besides rape, the exchange of sex for food or other privileges, sexual slavery and mutilation were also prevalent. Some people reported breasts sliced off in attacks. Sometimes, the report said, attackers publicly displayed their victims’ sexual organs by leaving the dead bodies naked in the open. Or wood sticks were seen projected into women’s vaginas.
The information is drawn from interviews of people who had experienced the assaults firsthand or witnessed or heard about them. Research was done from August 2013 to March 2014 and financed by GIZ, the German development agency, which has an office in Cambodia.
“Sexual violence appears to have been another method by which the Khmer Rouge persecuted minorities,” the report said. It also noted that “ethnic minorities were sometimes and in some locations targeted for purges. In circumstances where ethnic minority women were to be killed, respondents indicated that women were often raped first.”
“They hated Khmer Muslim,” a Khmer Muslim woman in the study testified. “They just had to rape them. They said that they would rape beautiful Khmer Muslim women. But I never witnessed this, I only heard what they said.” Cambodians regard Muslim communities as a separate ethnic group.
While rape was thoroughly feared among ethnic minority women and girls during the Khmer onslaught, forced marriages became the main means to destroy their identity. A majority of minority women interviewed said they were asked to marry an ethnic Khmer partner. They expected punishment or death if they did not agree. Up to hundreds of couples were married at one time, without family involvement. Almost all couples were watched by the regime at night after the marriage ceremony to enforce consummation (a tactic also used on nonethnic Cambodians pushed into marriage).
People who were forced to marry, the report said, “expressed great sorrow” at not having been able to choose their spouse or to be married traditionally.
“The research is very timely and, hopefully, the co-investigating judges [on the UN-Cambodian tribunal] will take it into account in their continuing investigations,” said Katrina Natale, a former research fellow for the Cambodian Defenders Project. She wrote “I Could Feel My Soul Flying Away From My Body,” a study of sexual and gender-based violence during the Khmer Rouge period.
“It would be very powerful if these stories would come out through the ECCC; it would help to debunk the myth that sexual violence was not a prominent feature of Democratic Kampuchea and to demonstrate that sexual violence also targeted ethnic minorities,” Natale added.
The tribunal is scheduled to announce the verdict of two defendants, Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea, in early August for allegations of crimes against humanity. Khieu Samphan was the regime’s head of state and Nuon Chea was the regime’s No. 2 leader. The tribunal is still investigating possible crimes against such ethnic groups as the Chams and the Khmer Krom, many of whom are Muslims.
“These acts fit into the UN definition of crime against humanity,” said Braaf of the Cambodian Defenders Project, referring to the sexual violence against ethnic minorities. “The ECCC should include broader sexual violence crimes in their investigations.”
Andreas Selmeci, a former civil peace service coordinator for GIZ, said the Khmer policy of forced marriages was primarily directed at the mainstream population.
“In the course of massacres against Cham/Khmer Muslims, the death toll of men was higher than of women,” Selmeci said in an interview. “It is very likely that women from that group who were deported” — compelled into labor camps after their husbands were killed — “also were subject to forced marriage. However, no research has been conducted on this.”
The widespread practice of forced marriage and rape in such marriages was addressed by the Cambodian tribunal in 2007, during the selection of people who would represent civilian victims in the trials. Some of the civilian witnesses were accepted because they had been forced to marry. The court accepted that forced marriage and forced sex in these circumstances were crimes and classified them as a kind of torture.
“This has been a very important achievement,” Natale said. “These crimes have resulted in tremendous suffering for victims — in many cases, the impacts last even to today and affect multiple generations.”
For Selmeci, some other events still need to be addressed, like the use of ethnic Vietnamese women for brothels of the Khmer Rouge or their Chinese allies.
“There were traces of such actions,” he said, adding that “it was difficult to dig deeper into this phenomenon.” Other issues that have not come up in the tribunal are the high death rates suffered by homosexuals, sex workers and transgender people during the Khmer Rouge regime, Selmeci noted.
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Clothilde Le Coz is an independent journalist and writer based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, who specializes in social, political and human-rights issues. She is a media development consultant for the Cambodian Center for Independent Media and formerly worked as the Washington D.C. director for Reporters Without Borders. She has an M.A. in international relations and journalism and a B.A. in political science, both from SciencesPo in Grenoble, France. She also has a bachelor in philosophy from the Sorbonne.