While there can be no doubt of the depth of the horrors inflicted upon Cambodia’s population between 1975 and 1979, sexualized crimes committed specifically against the country’s ethnic minority communities have largely been shrouded in silence.
On Monday, however, the Cambodian Defenders Project released a series of first-person accounts from more than 100 ethnic Vietnamese, Khmer Krom, Khmer Islam and Cham Muslim people in six provinces that together paint a vivid picture of the Khmer Rouge regime’s sustained efforts to marginalize, outbreed and ultimately extinguish their ways of life.
For the minority communities in six provinces, the years between the regime’s rise and fall were marked by deliberate, sustained and sometimes fatal sexualized violence in the form of rape, forced marriage and sexual slavery, lead researcher Rochelle Braaf found.
“[S]exual violence appears to have been another method by which the Khmer Rouge persecuted minorities,” the report says.
“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,” it says.
Forced marriage with Khmer spouses was also used as a weapon, Ms. Braaf said, in the sense that the Khmer Rouge “was actively trying to breed out these communities,” she said Monday.
One story details the rape and mutilation of a Khmer Krom girl’s breasts. In another case, the victim’s hands and legs were severed after she was raped.
A Khmer Islam respondent spoke of about 10 women from her community being held as sex slaves, only to be executed after seven days.
In April, the international co-prosecutor at the Khmer Rouge tribunal, Nicholas Koumjian, asked the court’s co-investigating judges to consider allegations of rape, forced marriage and gender-based violence in their investigation of the government-opposed Case 004.
Later this year, the second phase of Case 002 is set to proceed into its second mini-trial with charges that include genocide, rape and forced marriage.
But while few personal accounts will be told at the court, the newly released testimonies highlight the importance of oral histories in capturing the unique perspectives of those who suffered through the Khmer Rouge.
This was also the motivation for a second report released Monday by the NGO Kdei Karuna.
Pralay Meas commune in Kompong Chhnang province’s Kompong Leng district is currently a riparian home to a number of Khmer communities, but it was once a place where generations of ethnic Vietnamese lived, until they too were expelled or completely wiped out by targeted killings at the hand of the Khmer Rouge.
The depth of generational and spiritual ties between these people and their ancestral home may have been otherwise lost were it not for the narrative of victims such as Pham Yang Thoeng, who in the report offers glimpses into a minority life that once thrived.
“In the 1940s, the forest around Pralay Meas was still thick. Rowing quietly through the labyrinth of trees, he observed wild animals and birds,” the report says of his experiences.
Three decades later, experiences like those of Chang Yang Arng would become the norm. To the researchers, he recounted the emptying out of Pralay Meas at gunpoint once the Khmer Rouge had taken power.
“Forced to leave Pralay Meas without any explanation, no one was allowed to take any belongings. Chang Yang Arng observed how people who had loaded their boats with supplies were killed on the spot.”
Their testimonies are of particular importance because of the sheer number of ethnic Vietnamese who were forced out of the country—up to 170,000—and the estimated 20,000 who were killed.
“By the end of 1978, the Vietnamese minority had disappeared completely from Cambodia,” says the report.
Youk Chhang, executive director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, said oral histories and first-person perspectives are invaluable to memorializing history, which is why he is pushing for village chiefs around the country to start collecting localized accounts of life.
“We have lost this tradition of recording what happened,” he said. “So it’s very important to know who we were.”