Backstory: Saying 'I do' - willingly, this time
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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."