Charlotte Pert


Nat Geo Explorer: 1976 Forced Marriage

A young adolescent Anteth Sao (62) an indigenous Phnong woman, was in Phnom Penh looking for work, when King Sihanouk was expelled. After this she had to return to her home village for safety, when she returned she recalls seeing a lot of airplanes, forcing her family to leave the village. They would run for their lives if they saw a plane, as they were scared of US bombs being dropped on her village, as bombs regularly hit her area between 1971-1972. 

In 1973 the Khmer Rouge arrived in her village, and was forced to become a nurse for the Khmer Rouge, working in the district hospital, taking care of soldiers- “if you didn’t, then you’re dead”

She recalls a lot of the indigenous people joining the Khmer Rouge by choice, as they loved the king and wanted to support him after being expelled by Lon Nols government. The King built a lot of homes and schools in O’Preas district in support of their participation in fighting the french. 

Anteth Sao (62),, did not want to marry outside her Phnong group, but was forced by the Khmer Rouge to marry her husband, a non-indigenous, Cambodian man. She knew is she refused to marry him, she would be killed. 

Anteth Sao and her husband Bhoo Phoan, knew each other previously as they were both forced to work as nurses at the same Khmer Rouge hospital. With no choice, they were forced to marry in 1976, in a ceremony with 4 other couples. Each couple was to take turns standing up and swearing before Angka that they would marry, and make a successful marriage, each taking it in turn to stand and swear. To not do so, would be seen as a betrayal to Angka, resulting in death. She remembers the following day, 20 couples were wed in a large ceremony together. She said there were a lot of forced marriages at the time- some people died, some separated after the Khmer Rouge, and some stayed together. 

Anteth and Bhoo Phoan were the lucky ones, despite not loving each other and not wanting to marry, they say after the birth of their first child in 1977, they started to love one another, and were happy. They were so happy, they stayed together after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, and continued to have another seven children.         

Despite being happy, the Khmer Rouge impacted indigenous culture, their children were later brought up in the khmer way, but can speak the Phnong language. During the Khmer Rouge, they were not allowed to follow their traditional indigenous practices of preying, animal sacrifice, ceremonies, etc. They were banned from these practices,  and were to afraid to do anything that violated orders. They could not follow their Phnom customs without permission, as they had no right to practice their beliefs-

"If you dared to ask for permission, then you dared to go to hell"

Forced marriages were common practice during the Khmer Rouge. Despite being a violation of rights, Annette was lucky enough to live a happy life with her husband, and grow to love him. They are still together today, still happy- and as a result, surrounded by children and grandchildren.