PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — In a vast courtroom on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, a middle-aged Cambodian woman soberly described a night nearly four decades ago that she said she had never talked about before.
The local leader of the Khmer Rouge government had assigned her to marry one man, but at the last minute decided on another, she told the court. On their wedding night in early 1977, she refused his advances. The man complained to the chief, who raped her and threatened to kill her, before sending her back to live with her new husband.
“I bit my lips and shed my tears,” said the woman, identified at the tribunal only as 2-TCCP-274 to protect her identity. She eventually let her husband have sex with her.
The United Nations-backed tribunal investigating the crimes of the Khmer Rouge has turned in recent weeks to an aspect of the radical Maoist regime that has often been overlooked amid its mass killings and other brutalities: regulations governing marriage. The panel is considering whether the policies amounted to forced marriage or led to sexual assault, both potentially crimes against humanity.
The people who have testified so far, most in their 60s, have laid bare the scope of a practice that many Cambodians describe anecdotally, if sometimes reluctantly. A wide range of experiences has emerged in court: women set aside for disabled soldiers, militiamen spying on couples to confirm they were having sex, people corralled into group weddings who engaged in desperate ploys to be paired off with vague acquaintances rather than strangers.
Some couples managed to find mutual compassion under the coercion, and built relationships that endured. Others continue to lead lives of quiet regret over the choices that were taken from them.
Prosecutors have estimated, tentatively, that as many as several hundred thousand people were married in Khmer Rouge ceremonies between 1975 and 1979, though there have been no reliable surveys. The Khmer Rouge’s stated policy was to increase the country’s population, and in a society with a tradition of arranged marriage, the regime assumed the role of parent to an entire people as part of its utopian project to remake Cambodia.
It held group weddings across the country, but without the customary Buddhist rituals and blessings from relatives and neighbors. The practice, some academics argue, was intended to assert totalitarian control by weakening the bonds of family, community and religion.
Lawyers for the regime’s two surviving leaders, Khieu Samphan, 85, the head of state, and Nuon Chea, 90, the group’s chief ideologue, challenge the notion that the marriage regulations were inherently coercive. The defense has yet to present its case, but at least one lawyer has intimated that Khmer Rouge marriages were simply a variation on common, traditional arranged marriages.
And any coercion or sexual abuse that occurred, both men’s defense teams have suggested, was the result of decisions by midlevel Khmer cadres, not state policy.
The tribunal was established in 2006 to examine the effects of the Khmer Rouge’s radical policies, which historians say resulted in the deaths of some 1.7 million people.
In 2014, Mr. Khieu Samphan and Mr. Nuon Chea were each sentenced to life in prison, primarily for crimes committed during the regime’s drive to move people out of cities to work in rural communes. That judgment is under appeal, and the court has moved on to crimes at detention centers and forced labor sites, and against two ethnic minority groups.
The charge of forced marriage was included late in the development of the sprawling indictment, at the insistence of victims’ lawyers and women’s rights groups pushing for greater recognition of sexual violence and gender-based abuses in international criminal law. But the tribunal has heard evidence of the policy’s effects on men as well.
One man with broad shoulders and a deep frown, known as 2-TCCP-232, told the tribunal how he had been forced to marry someone other than his fiancée. Speaking with his head down, he recalled that they had worked in separate mobile units in the same district, digging canals and carrying dirt. But they were politically suspect because he had been a police officer, and some of her relatives had been “smashed” — taken away and presumably executed — as enemies of the revolution, he said.
A unit chief warned that he, too, would be smashed if he tried to marry his fiancée. When he was told one day in 1978 that the Khmer Rouge would arrange a family for him, he did not dare protest. A group wedding was held, in the dark, for about 50 men and 50 women.
Some, perhaps people “with good biographies,” seemed to have some say in choosing their partners, he said. But that night, he was afraid to even look at the woman he was marrying. They were couple No. 42.
The next night, they were directed to a flimsy shack. “We treated each other like brother and sister,” he said. “I did not touch her.” They were too exhausted to have sex, he said. He still had not seen her face. “It was only in the morning that we could see each other clearly,” he said.
And then they were sent back to work.
Some academics say the Khmer Rouge’s regulation of marriage was intended to attack traditional Cambodian belief systems. Peg LeVine, a medical anthropologist and fellow at the University of Southern California Shoah Foundation’s Center for Advanced Genocide Research, said it “broke down, mutated and eroded the ancestral rituals that Cambodians practice to placate the spirit world.”