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  • Writer's pictureThe Gender Security Project

The Ghosts of Gender-Based Violence: A Legacy of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge Regime

written by Olga Cowings and Gavin Cowings*

The Khmer Rouge regime is another black mark on humanity’s history, among other tragic conflicts such as those in Yugoslavia and Rwanda, which saw genocide and other crimes against humanity committed that have since been tried in international criminal tribunals. In Cambodia, roughly two million people, or a quarter of the entire population, died by means of torture, execution, disease, famine and exhaustion (Tyner, 2015) under the leadership of the Khmer Rouge who sought to return the country to an agrarian utopian society (Dicklitch & Malik, 2010).  This vision required the adoption of disastrous, draconian leadership and abandonment of vital evolutionary components of human history such as medicine, education and law through “the extermination of the elite and educated, a complete evacuation of urban centres, the incineration of books, libraries, banks, places of worship, and university facilities, the execution of ethnic minorities; and the prohibition of religious practice and education.” (Van Schaack, 1997).

The legacy of the Khmer Rouge has been far-reaching and lives on in many aspects of Cambodian society. Land disputes resulting in forced eviction are a common and controversial problem given the issues regarding ownership of private land prior to the Khmer Rouge regime, who put an end to private land ownership (CBRE Cambodia, 2012). A more grim example is the legacy of the four to six million land mines that were laid during three decades of conflict, with about 63,000 civilians and soldiers involved in land mine accidents, resulting in one of the highest amputee ratios in the world (Ruffins, 2010). Furthermore, the effects of an abolished education system can be derived from census data; those of school age in the 1970s have lower educational attainment than younger generations (de Walque, 2006).

As the education system collapsed, so did the population of professionals and intellectuals, who were virtually exterminated (Ghouse, Coughlan & Smith, 2012), leaving ten qualified lawyers in the country when the Khmer Rouge fell (AI, 2002). It was therefore hopeful that the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), established in 2003, would become a model court of the domestic legal system and leave a legacy bolstering the rule of law in Cambodia while building the national judiciary’s capacity (ICTJ, 2009). Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan stated that the ECCC should have “considerable legacy value, inasmuch as it will result in the transfer of skills and know-how to Cambodian court personnel”(UNAKRT, 2003).

Although the extent of the ECCC’s legacy is debatable given various obstacles including corruption and political interference (Ghouse, Coughlan & Smith, 2012), it has successfully tried and convicted members of the top leadership of the Khmer Rouge of war crimes in case 001 and 002/01 (ECCC, 2016, “Case Load”). Additional allegations of crimes against humanity were brought in the closing order of case 002/01 that would form the basis of case 002/02, including forced marriage and rape (ECCC, 2016, “Case 002”), both instances of gender-based violence (GBV) and sexualized crime (TPO, 2015). As mentioned by several authors of the Khmer Rouge period, sexualized and gender based violence included the mutilation of sexual organs, the exchange of sex for food, rape of males and females, sexual assaults,  fetuses taken from pregnant women and virginity controls (TPO, 2015). With an aim to increase the population and control sexuality, the forced marriage policy was a cornerstone of GBV and sexualized violence under the Khmer Rouge (TPO, 2015).

Civil Parties, who have the right to submit investigative requests to the Co-Investigating Judges, largely used this mechanism in case 002/01 to have sexualized violence investigated (TPO, 2015). Nearly 4000 victims participated as Civil Parties, of which 70% were female (Laidlaw, 2014). Females, and especially women aged 15-29 in 1976 were most likely to survive the genocide (de Walque, 2006) and consequently form a majority of the Civil Parties participating in the tribunal, which are largely supported by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Cambodia. Empowered by local civil society, GBV victims are leaving a powerful legacy of the Khmer Rouge period through an internationalized judicial setting by bringing justice to other victims and contributing to an international standard of classifying GBV and sexualized crimes as crimes against humanity.  

The tribunal on the former Yugoslavia was the first to give distinct attention to gender-based crimes, reflecting the work of feminist journalists detailing accounts of rape, forced prostitution and forced pregnancy by women’s support groups and women’s projects at human rights organizations (Anderson, 2005).  Unlike victims participating in the Tribunal on the former Yugoslavia, victims of sexualized and gender-based violence under the Khmer Rouge are older women who are, without support from civil society, reluctant to share their stories and experiences. Ms. Net Savoen is such a victim, and shared her story in hopes of making the next generation know more about such crimes (GBVKR, 2016).

 “In 1978, after the harvesting season, she was moved to Pursat province. She is the only survivor of around 30 women who were taken to be killed by the Khmer Rouge and who were raped before being killed. This happened in the cooperative of Prek Chig in Pursat province. At around six in the evening when they were taking a rest from carrying earth, Khmer Rouge chlob selected 30 strongly built women who were told they had to go carry salt. There were around ten Khmer Rouge chlob who led them into a forest. When they were close to the forest, the chlob made them sit down and tied them up immediately. After they tied them up, they continued to lead them into the forest. On the road, some realized that they were taken to be killed and refused to follow them but they were beaten.

When they arrived at the execution site in the forest, they started to rape the women and beat them to death with axes and finally they cut their throats. The pretty women were raped by them as they wished. Some women were raped by three to four men before they were killed. She could clearly see everything that happened because it was full moon. They started to kill and rape the women from the time the moon was rising at sunset until the moon was fully up in the middle of the sky. Then it was her turn. She was the last person among all who was standing and waiting for her turn until her whole body was numb because she did not know what to do.

She was raped by two people with her hands tied up. After that she did not know what else they did to her. When she regained consciousness, the sun was already rising. She had no clothes on her and was full of blood because the perpetrators hit her three times on the middle of the head with an axe. Barely alive, she looked for clothes near the dead bodies to cover herself. She saw dead bodies around her and looked around for some time to see if there were any survivors but did not see any. She tried to walk back to the village but she was not sure about the direction. She followed the sound of the chickens. When she arrived at the house of her mother her mother did not let her stay because she knew that sooner or later the murderers would know about this and then would come to take her again to be killed and they could take the family or the people close to her. Her mother told her to run away. She started walking without knowing the direction. When she arrived in a village the people there helped her to recover from her injuries. Around 15 days later, the Vietnamese troops marched in.

As for the perpetrators, she did not know them because she was a new person. The perpetrators were very young, around 17 to 18 years old and most of them were chlob. Until today, she does not know where they live and what happened to them.

The torture committed against her was severe and hard to endure. But she also feels very lucky to have survived until today. Now she can control herself much better. At the beginning, every night of the full moon she felt as if she was still sick and always remembered the story. Sometimes she would walk to other houses in the village or walk around in her house. Through the psychological support of the organization CDP, she feels much better. She has told this story to other people before. When she spoke about what happened to her she felt even more relieved. To preserve the memory, she is willing to tell the story to others if they want to know the truth. She is telling this story to make the next generation understand about such crimes.”

Unfortunately, Ms. Net Savoen is hardly an exception to the personal experience of victims of war crimes under the Khmer Rouge. The Transcultural Psychological Organization published a study in 2015 detailing the findings of a survey of 222 respondents who were Civil Parties to Case 002(TPO, 2015). 30.6% reported to have witnessed rape, while 4.6% reported to having experienced it outside of forced marriage. Several confirmed that rape was committed before victims were executed, and a significant majority pointed to Khmer Rouge cadres as the perpetrators of rape.  A quarter said to have witnessed or directly experienced (8.3%) sexual humiliation and abuse including forced nudity and unwelcome sexual contact; 10% of respondents reported witnessing an abortion, which were made dangerous and painful by a lack of medical care and often resulted in death. 68.9% of the victims of forced marriage revealed that they still worry about others’ opinion of themselves in light of their experience of sexualized violence.

Forced marriage was a common, impersonal practice under the Khmer Rouge; marriage ceremonies involved 3-160 couples, who usually had no choice in their partner, and many of whom had never met each other before; refusal to marry and later consummate often resulted in imprisonment, torture or death (CDP, 2013). This policy stripped Cambodians of their fundamental right to choice and consent, and nearly a quarter of forced marriages are reported to have involved spousal abuse (TPO, 2014). Even after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, cultural and circumstantial barriers prevented divorce and couples remained in ill-matched unions until the end of their lives (CDP, 2013).

The TPO found that 60% of respondents said that they had never spoken about their experiences (TPO, 2015). The ECCC and local civil society play a crucial role in filling the knowledge gap regarding GBV under the Khmer Rouge by providing outreach and support to Civil Parties; 95.4% of respondents expressed that participating in the ECCC has had a positive impact on them and their families, emphasizing the importance of justice and the importance of being part of a Civil Party as a mechanism for pain and the reduction of anger. 99.1% agreed that participating as Civil Parties gave them a sense of justice.

The ECCC’s model is premised on the notion that in situ proceedings with strong national participation help connect survivors to the criminal process (UNSC, 2004); this is the first internationalized criminal court to include victims as Civil Parties in the proceedings (Ciorciari & Hiendel, 2014). Its unique opportunities for direct survivor participation and ability to connect with victims and the general public have made up one of its greatest achievements; victims can observe or participate in the proceeding while engaging in truth-telling (Ciorciari & Hiendel, 2014). In 2010, Judge Silvia Cartwright explained that non-judicial measures (such as transitional justice) “will be a major legacy of this Tribunal”, and that the ECCC considers the involvement of victims at trial of great importance (Cartwright, 2010). Civil Parties are able to question the accused, witnesses, other Civil Parties and experts through their lawyers at the ECCC; they can submit their own witness, Civil Party or expert lists to the Trial Chamber to take a stand and ensure their perspective is voiced (TPO, 2015).

The sense of transitional justice taking root in Cambodia is in large part due to the efforts of local civil society as a result of monetary and human resource constraints at the ECCC. For example, the ECCC set a limited initial budget for outreach activities, and it was assumed that the court would lean on local civil society to fill the gap in outreach to victims and survivors (Ciorciari & Hiendel, 2014). Between the start of case 001 in 2009 and the end in 2011, 111,543 people visited the court to view live proceedings or as part of a study tour (ECCC, 2012), with over 83% of them Cambodians who used the ECCC’s free transportation service, organized in partnership with civil society organizations (Ciorciari & Hiendel, 2014). Likewise, the initial budget for the Victim Support Section was limited, and a large majority of victims who chose to participate in the ECCC learned their rights through NGOs, which serve as their primary connection to the court (Phuong et al., 2011). NGOs, such as the Cambodian Defenders Project, which provides free legal services to Cambodians wishing to register as Civil Parties, have been prolific in this area, undertaking ambitious outreach and capacity-building programmers (Ghouse, Coughlan & Smith, 2012).

Despite the largely unlimited scope of the legal right to participation by Civil Parties at the ECCC, their rights were restrained in case 001, where the Trial Chamber determined that the role of the Civil Parties was foremost to seek repatriations (Trial Chamber, 2009). Changes to victim participation mechanisms since case 001 means that victims are collectively rather than individually represented at the Tribunal (UNSC, 2004), reducing the chance that their personal account will be heard before the court. While case 002/02 includes allegations of a policy of forced marriage and rape, the Trial Chamber omitted rape outside of forced marriage, claiming that the accused cannot be liable as this was not a policy of the Khmer Rouge leaders and sexual violence was in fact prohibited(TPO, 2015). This top-down approach is a significant short-coming of the ECCC, presuming that the responsibility for crimes rests in the top leadership of the Khmer Rouge and not among the lower-level officers(Anderson, 2005).

Despite the flaws of victim participation mechanisms at the ECCC, limiting the scope of allegations against the accused in case 002/02 and representing Civil Parties collectively will ensure that the trial is more efficient. This is of paramount importance given the advanced age and state of fragile health of the accused, where proceedings were dropped against one in case 002/01 after his death in March 2013 and another accused found unfit to stand trial due to dementia(Laidlaw, 2014). As Surya P Subedi, the UN Human Rights Council ‘s Independent Expert on Cambodia, stated following these events in 2013, “We know from other instances of accountability processes around the world that, although a final judgment was not reached, the mere fact of seeing Ieng Sary forced to face his accusers will have brought some degree of comfort to the surviving victims of the Khmer Rouge, the families of the victims, and the whole of Cambodian society that continues to suffer from the impact of the Khmer Rouge to this day” (Laidlaw, 2014). With the parallel progressing age and deteriorating health of Civil Parties, the effort of civil society to represent Civil Parties at the ECCC has been crucial to ensuring that their ghosts will continue to justify a legacy of sexualized and gender based violence in conflict as a crime against humanity long after case 002/02 comes to an end.

Works Cited

AI (Amnesty International). (2002). Kingdom of Cambodia, Urgent Need for Judicial Reform. Retrieved from

Anderson, K. (2005). Turning Reconciliation on Its Head: Responding to Sexual Violence Under the Khmer Rouge. Seattle Journal for Social Science, 3.

Cartwright, J. (2010). Opening Speech, ECCC 7th Plenary Session. Retrieved from

CBRE Cambodia. (2012, August 9). Understanding land ownership in Cambodia. The Phnom Penh Post. Retrieved from

CDP (Cambodian Defenders Project). (2013). List of Critical Issues submitted to CEDAW. Retrieved from

Ciorciari, J., & Heindel, A. (2014). Experiments in International Criminal Justice: Lessons from the Khmer Rouge Tribunal. Michigan Journal of International Law, 35(2).

De Walque, D. (2006). The socio-demographic legacy of the Khmer Rouge period in Cambodia. Population Studies, 60 (2).

Dicklitch, S., & Malik, A. (2010). Justice, Human Rights and Reconciliation in Postconflict Cambodia. Human Rights Review, 11 (4).

ECCC (Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia) (2012). ECCC surpasses 100,000 visitors milestone. Retrieved from

ECCC (Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia). (2016). Case 002. Retrieved from

ECCC (Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia). (2016). Case Load. Retrieved from

GBVKR. (2016). Survivor Profiles. Retrieved from

Ghouse, S., Coughlan, J., & Smith, R. (2012). The Legacy of the Khmer Rouge Tribunal: Maintaining the Status Quo of Cambodia’s Legal and Judicial System. Amsterdam Law Forum, 4 (2).

ICTJ (International Center for Transitional Justice). (2009). Where to From Here for International Tribunals?. Retrieved from

Laidlaw, A. K. (2014). Bringing Justice to Cambodia: Reflections on Dame Silvia Cartwright’s Role at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal. Victoria University Wellington Law Review, 45.

Phuong N. Pham, et al. (2011). Victim Participation at the Trial of Duch at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia. Human Rights Practice, 3(3).

TPO (Transcultural Psychological Organization Cambodia) (2014). Like Ghost Changes Body. Retrieved from

TPO (Transcultural Psychological Organization Cambodia) (2015). A Study about Victims’ Participation at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia and Gender-Based Violence under the Khmer Rouge Regime. Retrieved from

Ruffins, E. (2010, July 30). Cambodian man clears land mines he set decades ago. CNN. Retrieved from

Trial Chamber, Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (2009). Decision on Civil Party Co-Lawyers Joint Request for a Ruling on the Standing of Civil Party Lawyers to Make Submissions on Sentencing and Directions Concerning the Questioning of the Accused, Experts and Witnesses Testifying on Character. Retrieved from

Tyner, J. A. (2015). Radical Geography and the Legacy of the Khmer Rouge. Geopolitics, 20 (4).

UNAKRT. (2003). Report of the Secretary-General on the Khmer Rouge Trials. Retrieved from

UNSC (2004). The Rule of Law and Transitional Justice in Conflict and Post-conflict Societies. Retrieved from

Van Schaack, B. (1997). The Crime of Political Genocide: Repairing the Genocide Convention’s Blind Spot. The Yale Law Journal, 106.

*Post formerly appeared here.


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