I recently was an expert witness from October 11-13, 2016, at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) in Phnom Penh, the so-called Khmer Rouge Tribunal that was established in 2001. When I mention this to colleagues, a typical response is, “That’s still going on?” Indeed. Many forget the train that runs direct from USC to Long Beach takes you to the largest concentration of Cambodian survivors in the United States, where elders make daily offerings to ancestors in their homes or Buddhist temples. And their oral and visual histories, yet to be recorded, are vulnerable to time.
Of the crimes against humanity being investigated, I was called to present my research findings on marriages under the Khmer Rouge (1975-1979). When preparing for the Tribunal, I read over 3,000 pages of documents, NGO reports, newspaper articles, and court transcripts. Putting biased samples and political tirades to the side, most frustrating for me were how journalists, NGO-funded researchers, and civil party supporters conflated the weddings under the Democratic Kampuchea (DK) with domestic violence later on. The significant cultural fact consistently neglected by critics is that when the Khmer Rouge deleted courtship and the traditional time for engagement (the “half-married” ceremony), they violated centuries of procedural checks and balances that tried to make sure a prospective spouse is kind, decent and non-violent. The bad lot is not weeded out when courtship and engagement rituals are severed.
The civil party transcripts I reviewed from the ECCC contained claims that their marriages or the marriages of their parents were forced. Almost every transcript I read justified this claim by pointing to violence that happened after the wedding. To be sure, violence that happens after marriage is domestic violence. Without a ritualized weeding system, men and women in the Khmer Rouge era had no way of knowing if they had been paired with a nasty person until after their unceremonious wedding. Traumatically, some suffered domestic violence as early as their first night together.
I was thankful to judges and lawyers who asked me about ritualcide, the systematic destruction or alteration of traditional ritual practices and their sequencing. Ritualcide is a term that I coined in my research. I was able to advance the definition for Wikipedia during my inaugural research fellowship at USC Shoah Foundation Center for Advanced Genocide Studies (2015-2016). Research at the Center allowed me to study more deeply the relationship between genocide priming and ritual abolishment. I found strong evidence within and across the Holocaust testimonies indexed and preserved in the Visual History Archive.
As public evidence, it is easy to recall the scene in Schindler’s List where a Jewish father unscrews the mezuzah from the passage door and tucks it in his pocket while the Nazis evacuate him and his family. In a similar vein, while taking testimony for USC Shoah Foundation in the home of a mother and daughter who survived the Khmer Rouge, rituals that honored or connected them to their ancestors were of needed support after recalling agonizing histories. The breakdown of rituals and their sequencing can leave people stranded without spirit or ancestors’ protection. This has been the case for victims of the Jewish Holocaust, and the Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwandan, Guatemalan and other genocides.
I was stimulated by the questions asked by all the lawyers and judges -- supporting and opposing. After returning to Melbourne, I walked around for days in “would have, should have, could have” head-knocking reruns. In the end, I believe that I was invited to give expert witness too late in the game. In spite of everything I researched for my second doctoral study, which is probably the most thorough study on the topic, “forced weddings” sings out like a mantra in the media. And after tracking the voices that have bullied, ignored or blackballed me before, during and after the ECCC proceedings, I am left with a big question mark. How will the judges ensure a fair trial for those accused of ‘forced’ marriages with so many double binds before them?