The characterization of marriages under the Pol Pot regime as “forced” has led many couples wed at the time to feel a new sense of shame, an expert witness told the Khmer Rouge tribunal on Tuesday.
Testifying for a second day, trauma psychologist Peg LeVine reiterated that she did not believe marriages during the Khmer Rouge era were forced and that defining them as such in the media and during court investigations perpetuated a “shame factor.”
“It was after the word ‘forced’ became an agenda item to be evaluated at the [tribunal] that people began to feel as if they were ashamed to tell their children about where and how they were married,” said Ms. LeVine, referring to the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia.
“The shame factor became an artifact of the representation of their weddings in the media, particularly, probably, from 2004 onwards,” she said.
Ms. LeVine said that she noticed a shift in the perceptions of many of her study’s respondents—who initially did not identify their marriages as forced—as a result.
She defined marriages under the Khmer Rouge as “conscription,” and said they held the function of “national service,” despite acknowledging the numerous stories recounted by civil parties at the court explaining their forced marriage ceremonies.
“I have no hesitation in believing that what civil party members have put forward as their experiences. I believe they are true…when they describe their particular weddings as being forced,” she said.
“However, as a trend, as a conclusion, were the weddings forced across time and place under DK?” she said, referring to Democratic Kampuchea, the name the Khmer Rouge gave the country at the time. “My answer is no.”
Ms. LeVine is the author of “Love and Dread in Cambodia: Weddings, Births and Ritual Harm under the Khmer Rouge.”
Prosecutor Nicholas Koumjian asked whether Ms. LeVine also perceived armies conscripting “comfort women” to serve in brothels during World War II as “national service” or “sexual slavery.”
“I find the implication offensive,” Ms. LeVine said, adding that it was an “unfair” association to make.
Ms. LeVine’s theories have proved controversial among those who argue that forced marriages were endemic during the Pol Pot regime.
Theresa de Langis, an academic who has researched sexual violence under the Pol Pot regime, said she found Ms. LeVine’s “conscription” theory baffling.
“I find the term confusing rather than clarifying. Conscription by definition means obligatory, without choice, compulsory, coercive,” Ms. de Langis said in an email.
“Did the respondents use this term, or is this a term from her own experience as part of the generation being conscripted for the U.S. war with Vietnam? If the second, it is a Western analytical imposition, and a false analogy,” she added.
The tribunal was also acting as a forum to shift shame away from survivors, Ms. de Langis said.
“The shame involved with these forced marriages, I think, is indicative of how we treat sexual crimes generally, which is to blame somehow the victim and therefore let perpetrators off the hook,” she said.
“I deeply admire the civil parties at the [tribunal] who are breaking the silence around the crime of forced marriage so we can begin to shift shame and blame, and accountability, to where it belongs.”