Backstory: Saying 'I do' - willingly, this time

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

Called in from the fields of his forced labor camp without explanation, Roth Chheng had every reason to assume that the Khmer Rouge was going to execute him as indiscriminately as it had slaughtered his compatriots for walking with a limp, speaking out of turn, or stealing a potato.

But that 1977 day, when Roth Chheng entered the empty dining hall, an official from the ultra-Maoist regime ordered the bewildered 27-year-old to hold hands with a young woman he'd never laid eyes on before: They were married, then and there, in a five-minute ceremony.

Dressed in his soiled work clothes, Roth Chheng numbly assented – yes, they would live together and love each other forever; yes, they would be eternally faithful to the regime – barely registering the broad-faced 25-year-old woman holding his hand. The slightest sign of insubordination might lead to torture or worse – certain death if he'd refused.

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In the weeks following, spies trailed them to ensure the matchmaking whim had succeeded.

Constant fear and strain defined the arrangement. Yet now, 30 years later, Roth Chheng still remembers the first spark of affection in the marriage: His wife sacrificed her food rations, bringing them to him at his labor camp.

"The portions we got were very small," he recalls, gently resting one hand on his wife's knee. "And she thought that a man would need more food than a woman."

Roth Chheng, now 56, and Sem Sat, 54, recently renewed their marital vows – this time by choice – with the Cambodian traditions that the genocidal regime had sought to obliterate. Showered with flower petals, laden with gifts, and surrounded by friends and family, they were among the 10 Khmer Rouge-arranged couples who participated in a ceremony last month in Takeo Province, about 20 miles south of Phnom Penh.

The event marked a moment of renewal and reconciliation for the thousands of Cambodian couples the Khmer Rouge had forced to wed between 1975 and 1979. In their attempt to create an ultracollectivist, agrarian utopia, the revolutionaries imposed mass relocation, forced labor, and psychological reprogramming. Nearly 2 million Cambodians died by execution, torture, and starvation during the regime.

Pairing rich with poor, handicapped with able-bodied, or seeming to follow no logic at all, the Khmer Rouge tried to engineer new families to replace the millions they'd torn apart, eliminating the traditional role of Cambodian family members in arranging marriages. Regime-arranged weddings made up nearly a quarter of all marriages of that era, according to a study by Patrick Heuveline, a University of Chicago sociologist.

Roth Chheng and Sem Sat's marriage may well have been a part of the Khmer Rouge's revolutionary scheme: before 1975, Roth Chheng was a middle-class policeman from Phnom Penh with a taste for classical literature; Sem Sat was a working-class market vendor. Both were in their mid-20s – long in the tooth for a Cambodian to be unmarried, at least outside revolutionary times.

The couple's marriage was the first in their labor camps, but forced ceremonies for scores of others followed. Just as abruptly as the two were forced together, they were forced apart: a week after they were married, Roth Chheng and Sem Sat were sent back to their respective labor camps and allowed to visit each other every 10 days.

Surrounded by brutality and cut off from the rest of their families, Roth Chheng and Sem Sat began to anticipate their visits – the beginnings of a bond that would help them survive. "It was hardest when one of us got sick – we weren't allowed to bring each other medicine or take care of each other," says Sem Sat. "At night, I worried that the regime had taken my husband away to be killed."

When the regime fell in 1979, the couple already had one child and – along with the majority of forcibly wed couples – resolved to build a new life together. Roth Chheng decided to forsake his past career in law enforcement and became a teacher of Khmer literature instead, he says, because "the younger generation had no knowledge, and I wanted to share it with them."

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Whether bound together by their children, mutual survival, or an attachment that had grown from shared suffering, these couples have restored family ties the regime tried to destroy.

Mr. Heuveline's research shows that only 5 percent of Khmer Rouge-arranged marriages have ended in divorce or separation, a lower rate than for that of marriages since the revolution.

Because far more men than women were killed during the regime, "women didn't have that many alternatives...." says Heuveline. "It was better to be married at all than unmarried.... [Cambodians] got busy with reconstruction and centered on their families, whomever they were with."

Roth Chheng and Sem Sat's five children and two grandchildren were among the throngs at last month's six-hour group wedding in the rural village of Seiha. The 10 grooms lined up outside the wedding tent, their relatives bearing heaps of coconuts, fruit, Coca-Cola, and a pig's head to present to the brides' families. The couples' brothers and sisters stood in for the brides' parents, receiving each groom as he crossed the threshold.

Abridging the traditional Buddhist service, which can last up to three days, the wedding featured some of its most crucial rites: a blessing by monks, a symbolic hair-cutting, and a ritual in which relatives "tie the knot" for the couples by securing red string around their wrists.

The wedding was paid for by a group of American donors, led by Chuck Theusch, a Vietnam War veteran who'd returned to the region in the late-1990s in search of reconciliation. He started an organization that builds libraries throughout Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia as a way to "break the cycle of vengeance ... and keep the burden off the shoulders of the children."

While visiting Seiha last June, Mr. Theusch was shocked to discover that villagers here had been forced to marry by the Khmer Rouge without a traditional ceremony and proposed hosting a group wedding for the community.

"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," says Theusch, who runs a real estate title business in Milwaukee.

But the wedding also evoked the specter of social judgment over the inauspicious beginnings of these marriages. Beang Pivome, a researcher at the Documentation Center of Cambodia, says some Khmer Rouge couples still fear that the circumstances of their marriages might affect their children's ability to wed or believe it might even spread bad luck to their neighbors.

Indeed, admits Phen Sary, who was forced to wed in 1978 and renewed his vows here last month, "I never told our children about how we got married.They just recently asked, when others [in the village] told them about the wedding."

But at a time of national reconciliation – with trials of surviving Khmer Rouge leaders to begin the year – a restorative atmosphere surrounded this local ceremony.

"The wedding makes me feel fresh," Roth Chheng explained at the ceremony. "Now nobody can say we didn't receive the khan sla" – the areca palm totem of traditional weddings.

The couple's eldest son watched them prepare for the monk's blessing. "I suffered a lot for my parents when I found out about their marriage," said Roth Savouen, 28, who was a teen when he discovered their history. "I feel honored for them today."

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