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.
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.
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.
Nakagawa, the Pannasastra University professor, said Taing Kim’s experience in publicly discussing her experience laid bare the problems for rape survivors.
“She showed to the Cambodian people, or to the world, that it is difficult for a (rape) survivor to openly seek justice,” she said.
“The fact that she decided to become a nun also demonstrated that she found that it is impossible to find peace of mind if she stays in a lay society,” Nakagawa said. “By becoming a nun, she gave up her choice to seek for justice, but rather stay safe and in peace in a religious world.”
Criminal justice and social acceptance often remain elusive for recent Cambodian rape victims as well.
Local human rights group Licadho studied 762 reported rape cases from 2012-2014 and found that a third of the victims avoided any pursuit of justice or compensation because of fear of social condemnation, and half of them settled out of court by accepting compensation money from the perpetrators.
DC-Cam’s Youk Chhang said it remains difficult and painful for Khmer Rouge rape victims and others who suffered under the regime to accept the court’s proceedings.
“The truth in the court is different from the truth in history,” he said. “There are many crimes that Khmer Rouge has done. The judge has to decide which one is the most serious, how beneficial it is (to prosecute), how long will it take, how much financially it will cost. The judge cannot prosecute all of the crimes.”