Bati district, Takeo province – Roth Chheng and Sem Sat had never met before a Khmer Rouge official forced them to vow eternal faithfulness to one another. In a dining hall near their Khmer Rouge labor camp, the young couple was ordered in 1977 to hold hands and promise “to live together and love each other forever.” The ceremony lasted all of five minutes.
Almost 30 years later, Roth Chheng, now 56, and Sem Sat, 54, renewed their wedding vows in a celebration in Chambak commune’s Seiha village on Saturday that restored the time-honored Khmer traditions the ultra-Maoist regime had sought to obliterate.
Showered with flower petals, laden with gifts and surrounded by friends and family, they were among the 10 couples originally married by the Khmer Rouge who participated in the group ceremony this weekend.
The ceremony aimed to represent a moment of renewal and reconciliation for the thousands of Cambodian couples the Khmer Rouge had forcibly wed between 1975 and 1979.
While a minority of these separated when the Pol Pot regime fell in 1979, the vast majority of couples decided to stay together, according to Patrick Heuveline, a sociology professor at The University of Chicago who recently co-authored a study on the marriages.
With only about 5 percent of the marriages ending in divorce or separation, the Khmer Rouge-wedded couples have proven to be “actually more stable than marriages contracted more recently,” Heuveline wrote in an e-mail.
The couples at Saturday’s ceremony revealed their own motives for staying together: for the sake of their children, mutual survival, or the attachment that had emerged from their shared suffering.
“A week after we were married, the Khmer Rouge forced us apart,” said Sem Sat, as her husband gently rested his hand on her knee. “We could only see each other every 10 days…. We already started to miss each other.”
The couple’s five children and two grandchildren were among the throngs of guests present at Saturday’s six-hour Buddhist ceremony.
At the ceremony’s opening at Angsoeng Library, 10 grooms lined up outside the wedding tent, with their children, relatives and neighbors bearing gifts to present to the brides’ families. The couples’ brothers and sisters stood in for the brides’ parents, greeting each groom as he crossed the threshold.
The couples also received two surprise visitors-Minister of Posts and Telecommunications So Khun and Minister of Agriculture Chan Sarun, both of whom happened to be visiting the area.
Briefly interrupting the Apsara dance presentation, the ministers handed out envelopes of cash to each couple, and Chan Sarun praised the ceremony as a “way to conserve the traditions and cultures of Cambodia.”
The wedding ceremony was paid for by a group of American donors, led by Chuck Theusch, 55, an American businessman whose Library of Cambodia NGO funded the expansion of the Angsoeng Library. Lor Chandara, associate editor at The Cambodia Daily, founded the Angsoeng library in 2001.
During a visit to the village in June, Theusch was shocked to discover that the Khmer Rouge had forced Doeuk Navy, 48, to wed her husband without any semblance of a traditional ceremony. He proposed hosting a proper Khmer wedding for the two-an idea that expanded to Saturday’s mass ceremony.
“In the US, it’s the same as Cambodia. Everyone should have a wedding, because it’s a day of hope and future for a new family,” said Theusch, who is a US veteran of the war in Vietnam and runs a real estate titling business in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
According to Beang Pivome, a researcher at the Documentation Center of Cambodia, some Khmer Rouge-wedded couples feared their inauspicious beginnings would affect their children’s ability to marry or even spread bad luck to their neighbors.
Those who refused to marry risked being tortured and killed and having their families targeted as well, said Em Sokhym, another DC-Cam researcher. Spies were regularly sent to the newlyweds’ living quarters to ensure they were living together as man and wife, she added.
“I never told our children about how we got married,” said Phen Sary, 47, who was forced to wed Nget Net, 49, in 1978 during a mass ceremony in Takeo province with 20 other couples. “They just recently asked, when others [in the village] told them about the wedding.”
By providing a traditional rite to these couples, Saturday’s wedding could be considered “a kind of medicine for healing,” said Seiha village chief Keo Lanh, 53.
“Now that these families have the formal ceremony, they can be considered ordinary people. It creates a kind of unity,” he said.
Roth Sovouen, 28, watched his parents, Roth Chheng and Sem Sat, adjust their costumes before the monks’ blessing. “I suffered a lot for my parents when I found out about their marriage,” said Roth Sovouen, who had been a teenager when his parents revealed their history.
“I feel honored for them today.”