Khmer Rouge-era Rape Cases Remain Taboo Topic, Justice Elusive for Survivors

Taing Kim came forward with her story in 2003, when she became one of the first women to speak publicly about her experience, which was also covered in a 2005 television documentary filmed by DC-Cam in the rice field. (Courtesy photo of DC-Cam)

One evening in 1975, soon after the Khmer Rouge forces had taken control of Cambodia, some of the cadres came to Taing Kim’s village in Boribo district of Kampong Chhnang Province.

The cadres inspected each household, and Taing Kim and her husband, who had soldiered for the defeated Khmer Republic forces of General Lon Nol, were taken to a nearby rice field. Taing Kim, then 23 years old, realized a terrible fate awaited them.

Her husband of five years was bludgeoned to death in front of her. The cadres raped Taing Kim and then planned to kill her. Afterward, as soldiers murdered another villager, a Khmer Rouge cadre let her slip away.

Taing Kim, now 61, recalled the traumatic violence in a recent interview with VOA Cambodia and said she hid in a large village pond for three days before escaping.

“I dream about those soldiers every night,” she said. “They chase me. I am really scared. They catch me and shoot. I feel a huge flame come over me until I wake and realize it’s just a dream.”

​Thousands of victims

Though she was lucky to survive the Khmer Rouge’s reign from April 1975 until January 1979, which left 1.7 million Cambodians dead, she is among the thousands of women who were victims of sexual violence. Many of them have had to suffer the effects of their trauma in silence and shame, because Cambodia’s conservative society offers little sympathy or understanding for rape victims.

“Cambodian culture blames women who were victimized by criticizing them as if they provoked the crime,” said Kasumi Nakagawa, a professor of gender studies at Pannasastra University in Phnom Penh. “Therefore, any woman who is abused or assaulted commonly finds it extremely difficult to disclose the crime.”

That attitude prevails, as shown in early August, when a Cambodian TV anchor on the Hang Meas television network appeared to blame female rape and murder victims for encouraging their attackers.

Speaking about Khmer Rouge-era rape

The Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam), a nongovernmental institute tasked with documenting the Khmer Rouge regime and educating the public about it, has recorded more than 190 rape survivors from the era.

FILE - Women arrive at the entrance gate to the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) for the trial hearing on evidences of forced marriage and rape during the Khmer Rouge regime, on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Aug. 23, 2016.

Taing Kim came forward with her story in 2003, when she became one of the first women to speak publicly about her experience, which was also covered in a 2005 television documentary. In 2007, when the newly called U.N.-backed Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) was still determining its legal scope as a war crimes court, she filed a criminal complaint.

The tribunal later rejected her complaint largely on a technicality.

Khmer Rouge survivors have generally had little chance of finding justice against individual perpetrators, as the tribunal’s jurisdiction has been limited to only a handful of senior leaders and “most responsible” perpetrators who have been imprisoned.

Taing Kim said she felt disappointed with the court proceedings.

“I have come to the court, however, I did not have a chance to give a testimony. Maybe they think my case is really common,” she said. “I am really tired of going to the court since my health is not well, and I have to spend a lot of money for transportation and food.”

Many ordinary Khmer Rouge veterans also continue to live, unpunished, in the countryside, sometimes near their victims. Taing Kim said she knows many former cadres who live near her home in Kampong Chhnang Province.

FILE - Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam), poses after an interview with Reuters in Phnom Penh, April 17, 2015.

Youk Chhang, DC-Cam’s executive director, said Taing Kim’s early public testimony paved the way for other victims to speak out and file a complaint with the U.N.-backed tribunal.

“She inspires many women in Cambodia, those who suffered under the Khmer Rouge regime or later, to bring their burden stories to the world,” he said, even though the culture of silence around rape and the lack of justice for victims meant “double suffering.”

Recent rape victims suffer, too

Taing Kim’s suffering became more acute when her second husband learned about the rape. Although married since the 1980s and the parents of three children, their union frayed as he and his family blamed her for the rape. Eventually, her husband divorced her, leaving her with the children.

Taing Kim turned to Buddhism and became a nun to seek to relief from the pain of her life. She continues to speak about her experience and this month she visited South Africa to present her story at the Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Foundation Center.

Ms. Taing Kim is one of the survivors during Khmer Rouge before leaving Cambodia to visit South Africa on July 31, 2017. (Hing Socheata/VOA Khmer)