Tuol Sleng Exhibition to Tell Stories of Forced Marriage

Every day, hundreds of tourists flock to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum to hear macabre stories of killings and torture carried out inside the prison once at the heart of the Khmer Rouge’s security apparatus.

On Tuesday, however, two rooms inside the former jail will be transformed into an exhibition titled “Sorrows and Struggles: Women’s experience of Forced Marriage during the Khmer Rouge Regime,” which is dedicated to victims of forced marriage during Democratic Kampuchea.

In one room, large gray strips of linen will be draped from the ceiling, inscribed with quotes from women forced into marriage. The fabric will form two lines to replicate the setup of Khmer Rouge wedding ceremonies in which couples—often complete strangers—were forced to pledge their allegiance to each other and, more importantly, the revolution.

In the adjacent room, portraits of seven victims—six women and one man—will be exhibited along with recordings of their stories, most of which tell of fear, abuse and a steadfast will to survive.

Some of the interviewees have remained married, including a 57-year-old woman whose testimony is displayed under the alias Heng Sopha. The woman has remained with an abusive partner that she was forced to wed in 1977. Her photo shows only her hands clasped together.

“He never dared to beat me openly during the Khmer Rouge time. He was afraid others might hear us arguing and that we’d be killed for not getting along,” she says in the testimony, which is presented in English and Khmer.

Today, however, Ms. Sopha said the abuse has become extreme.

“No villager dares to talk to him about his behavior because it only makes matters worse, and he beats me more cruelly. When I tried to sue for divorce, he stabbed me. He told me if I ever dared to try that again, he would kill me, and then himself. What can I do?”

Theresa de Langis, a researcher on sexual violence who conducted some of the interviews, said she hoped the exhibition—which will be on display for about six months—would raise awareness of a topic that is often overlooked amid the many horrors committed by the Khmer Rouge.

“These stories are very intimate; these aren’t stories about ‘I went to a meeting and Pol Pot was there.’ They’re stories about what it was like to live every day in an intimate relationship during that time,” Ms. de Langis said.

“For me, it’s very exciting, because for a long time Khmer people weren’t talking about these stories so they weren’t able to process or mourn this very fundamental loss; the loss of making such an important life decision, the loss of having your family involved, which is such an important thing here,” she said.

The exhibition opens on Tuesday at 5 p.m.

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