FAMILIES IN CAMBODIA
A household can either be made up of a nuclear family or some kind of extended family. The later is often a three-generation unit with parents, a married child and spouse and their children. Because so many families lost members in the Khmer Rouge era a household can consist of a wide range relative combinations. Single-parent families led by a widow are relatively common. Member of a household commonly share work, food and resources.
There are no organized kin units beyond the nuclear family. However, an individual often recognizes a kindred circle of relatives, known as bong p’on , linked by blood and marriage on both his or her father’s and mother’s side. An effort is made to maintain good relations with family members. Many Cambodians believe that hostility between relatives will lead to punishment by ancestors. Within kin groups individuals generally pick and chose the relatives they want to associate with. Kinship terms denote relative age and distinguish among parent’s siblings according to age relative to one’s parents. Kin term may be used to address non kin of the same or lower social status.
In the late 1980s, the nuclear family, consisting of a husband and a wife and their unmarried children, probably continued to be the most important kin group within Khmer society. The family is the major unit of both production and consumption. Within this unit are the strongest emotional ties, the assurance of aid in the event of trouble, economic cooperation in labor, sharing of produce and income, and contribution as a unit to ceremonial obligations. A larger grouping, the personal kindred that includes a nuclear family with the children, grandchildren, grandparents, uncles, aunts, first cousins, nephews, and nieces, may be included in the household. Family organization is weak, and ties between related families beyond the kindred are loosely defined at best. There is no tradition of family names, although the French tried to legislate their use in the early twentieth century. Most Khmer genealogies extend back only two or three generations, which contrasts with the veneration of ancestors by the Vietnamese and by the Chinese. Noble families and royal families, some of which can trace their descent for several generations, are exceptions. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987 *]
“Ownership of property among the rural Khmer was vested in the nuclear family. Descent and inheritance is bilateral. Legal children might inherit equally from their parents. The division of property was theoretically equal among siblings, but in practice the oldest child might inherit more. Each of the spouses might bring inherited land into the family, and the family might acquire joint land during the married life of the couple. Each spouse was free to dispose of his or her land as he or she chose. A will was usually oral, although a written one was preferred. *
Family Life in Cambodia
As the married couple moves through life they have children, nurture and train them, educate them, and marry them off. When they become too old to support themselves, they may invite the youngest child's family to move in and to take over running the household. At this stage in their lives, they enjoy a position of high status, they help care for grandchildren, and they devote more time in service to the wat (temple). [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987 *]
The individual Khmer is surrounded by a small inner circle of family and friends who constitute his or her closest associates, those he would approach first for help. In rural communities, neighbors--who are often also kin--may be important, too, and much of housebuilding and other heavy labor intensive tasks are performed by groups of neighbors. Beyond this close circle are more distant relatives and casual friends. In rural Cambodia, the strongest ties a Khmer may develop--besides those to the nuclear family and to close friends--are those to other members of the local community. A strong feeling of pride--for the village, for the district, and province--usually characterizes Cambodian community life. There is much sharing of religious life through the local Buddhist temple, and there are many cross-cutting kin relations within the community. Formerly, the Buddhist priesthood, the national armed forces, and, to a lesser extent, the civil service all served to connect the Khmer to the wider national community. The priesthood served only males, however, while membership in some components of the armed forces and in the civil service was open to women as well.*
Two fictive relationships in Cambodia transcend kinship boundaries and serve to strengthen interpersonal and interfamily ties. A Khmer may establish a fictive child-parent or sibling relationship called thoa (roughly translating as adoptive parent or sibling). The person desiring to establish the thoa relationship will ask the other person for permission to enter into the relationship. The thoa relationship may become as close as the participants desire. The second fictive relationship is that of kloeu (close male friend). This is similar, in many ways, to becoming a blood brother. A person from one place may ask a go-between in another place to help him establish a kloeu relationship with someone in that place. Once the participants agree, a ceremony is held that includes ritual drinking of water into which small amounts of the participants' blood have been mixed and bullets and knives have been dipped; prayers are also recited by an achar (or ceremonial leader) before witnesses. The kloeu relationship is much stronger than the thoa. One kloeu will use the same kinship terms when addressing his kloeu's parents and siblings as he would when addressing his own. The two friends can call upon each other for any kind of help at any time. The kloeu relationship apparently is limited to some rural parts of Cambodia and to Khmer-speaking areas in Thailand. As of the late 1980s, it may have become obsolete. The female equivalent of kloeu is mreak. *
Family Life Before the Khmer Rouge
Describing the life of Khmer Rouge survivor Pom Sarun before the Khmer Rouge era, Joanna R. Munson of the Documentation Center of Cambodia wrote: “Her mother, Thou Am, had been a cook for the Prince's wife in Phnom Penh. Before that, she sold sweets in the marketplace in Prey Veng Province, after her husband, Pom Soum, had abandoned the family in 1953. Her humble beginnings were a blessing, for she guided the well-educated and city-raised Sarun through the horrors of the Khmer Rouge. She taught her to farm and to be a competent villager. She taught Sarun to hide the education she had received in the best schools in Phnom Penh. [Source: Story of Pom Sarun told by Joanna R. Munson, Documentation Center of Cambodia, d.dccam.org ==]
“Sarun, born in 1950, and her two older brothers had moved to join their mother in Phnom Penh in 1956. They were raised with the Prince's family and despite their mother's social class, attended and completed the schools comprised almost entirely of the upper classes. After primary school, Sarun received three certificates for her work in the lycee. After four years, she received her "diplome"; after another one year, she received her baccalaureate 1 and then two years later, in 1968, her baccalaureate 2. She excelled in school. In 1968, she began a one-year teacher-training course in order to become a high school teacher. In 1969, she began her studies at both the Faculty of Pedagogy and the Faculty of Law. Her oldest brother worked as a technician for a sugar factory and her younger brother was a bridge installation technician. ==
“Having refused to marry until she completed her teacher-training course, Sarun was married in 1970 to a Chinese-Cambodian who had spent the better part of three years trying to persuade her to marry him. She was not in love with him. But her mother reminded her that Sarun's family was not rich, and her mother was alone in the world. And Tain Hak Khun was a well-educated bachelor from a very rich family. He had studied business administration in Peking and then Hong Kong, and come back to Cambodia in 1965 to administer the family's various businesses, including their restaurant Kok Meng, their perfume and clothing store, and their jewelry store. He loved her fiercely, but with a jealousy and protectiveness that threatened to stifle her ambitions. He did not want her to work, he did not want her to study, he did not want her out in the world. In order to make him happy, Sarun began working for his import/export business, but she refused to end her studies. In 1971, she gave birth to a baby boy, Sambot, who was followed one year later by a baby girl named Pich Chan Mony. That tiny girl she held in her arms in Phnom Penh, very much alive and kicking, would die quietly of starvation in Sarun's arms five years hence, her last words whispered through the mesh of hammock, "Mum, I am so hungry." ==
Married Life Under the Khmer Rouge
Under the Khmer Rouge, People were told who to marry and were given orders on how to live by draconian village leaders. Sophal Ly of the Documentation Center of Cambodia wrote: “In 1977, Ung Vuth’s marriage was arranged by Ta Mok. Laughing, she spoke about this, saying that she did not want a husband yet, but she could not reject the organization’s orders. “One day, a Chinese-made truck came to pick me up, lying to me and saying that I was called to join a party at the provincial town of Takeo. But when I arrived they told me I was about to get married.” [Source: Sophal Ly, Documentation Center of Cambodia, d.dccam.org \/]
“She did not live with her husband after marriage. Recalling the troubles in her marriage, Ung Vuth said: “Within a few days after the wedding, we did not get along with each other, but the organization coerced us to compromise. Nevertheless, it took us a long time to do so.” After that, she requested technical training on abortions at April 17 Hospital (Russian Hospital) for a year, but after only six months she was called by the regional chief to return to Takeo because she had not lived with her husband since their marriage. Ung Vuth told us that she eventually loved her husband because of his actions after the organization detained her at Sanlong Mountain prison at the end of 1977 under a pretext that she was required to attend a session. Her husband was ordered to do self-criticism for one night and told to divorce her. The organization told him that they would find him a new wife. But her husband refused. He packed his clothes and rode a bicycle to meet her at the prison. \/
“Ung Vuth said that she was imprisoned because the organization had accused her parents of involvement in a traitorous network, and that all of the relatives of such people would also be imprisoned. She stressed that Ta Mok was the one who both arranged her marriage and the arrests of her parents. She was certain that many killings were the act of Ta Mok. “Ta Mok was a sweet-talking person.” Thinking about this, she began to sob and spoke with sadness that “All of my brothers and sisters perished. I’ve never heard about them. All twelve members, including my parents... Only I am still alive.” All her siblings were hospital staff. She still remembers the name of one of the people who arrested her: Khem.” \/
Family Life Under the Khmer Rouge
Some of the killings and worst atrocities was carried out by children and teenagers. The children could be trained to do almost anything. One fighter later told Newsweek. “I didn’t know anything I was just as child. If I didn’t obey orders. I would’ve been killed.”
The perfect recruit for the Khmer Rouge was a poor, illiterate teenager who had been subjected to hardships because of the Vietnamese or Americans. In their training, children stabbed scarecrows dressed like Vietnamese soldiers and shouted “I’ll kill them! I’ll kill them!” as they were doing so.
Under the Khmer Rouge, family life was outlawed. Children were separated from their families. Husbands were removed from their wives. People were forced into communal dining halls and barracks, where men and women were segregated and slept in 45 foot collective beds. Children were taught to be killers and were encouraged to inform on their parents. There were bans of love and even laughter. People who disobeyed orders, and children that said they missed their parents and tried to find their families were executed.
Khmer Rouge survivor Kosal Phat of the Documentation Center of Cambodia wrote: “I was born on 5 October 1974 in Prasat Village, Kampong Kdey Sub-District, Che Krech District. My native village is part of a region liberated by the Khmer Rouge since 1972. My father was the only son in his family that completed his baccalaureate in Siem Riep Province. Because he loved and missed his parents so much he searched for a way to leave the provincial town that was still under the control of the government and returned to his native village. My father was the son of Khmer peasants and my mother was the daughter of wealthy Chinese who had a stone house and a large business and worked as creditors. [Source: Kosal Phat, Documentation Center of Cambodia, d.dccam.org/Survivors/37 ^^]
“My parents were the very last couple the communist Khmer Rouge forced to marry according to village custom. After they were married, their belongings were removed and placed in the collective. On 17 April 1975, my mother told me that in the village there was a broadcast in the speakers, congratulating the victory over the Lon Nol army and the U.S. imperialists. They said that the entire country had been liberated. My mother told me that everyone in the village was very happy, because our country was no longer at war. We would no longer have to flee or hide in the trenches from the B-52 bombs or the warplanes. ^^
“Not long after that day, even emotional sentiments, belonged to the collective. My father went to raise the dam and plowed the fields. The Khmer Rouge forced my mother to sew clothes in the cooperative. My mother knew how to sew because she was a well-known seamstress in the old regime. My mother’s family was evacuated to work in a cooperative far away because they had light skin. At that time, I was not even one year old. The old grandmothers in the village looked after me. She told me that I drank a lot of milk when she breast-fed me. I drank as if I had stopped breast-feeding for a long time. She was only able to breast-feed me in the evening when she returned from sewing in the cooperative. My mother told me that every day she worked hard at sewing, without rest, in order to fulfill the cooperative quota. It is her luck that she was still young and strong. She was only nineteen years old and she was able to endure the difficult work. She told me that the old grandmothers told her that when I cried, I cried until my jaws became stiff, because I cried for so long. But when I reached my mothers arms I stopped crying immediately. Through my mother’s vivid descriptions, all my senses return to the period 25 years earlier when I witnessed the misery and suffering. I keep thinking that the grandmothers certainly did not take care of me who was screaming for my mother. ^^
“April 17, 1975 was the day in which peace was stolen from my family and it was the day in which I, who was not even one year old, had to sacrifice the love and care of my parents. I did not even have nutritious food to eat. But this is also the day in which I thank my parents for caring for and protecting my life and allowing me to live and for loving me in such a difficult circumstance. I thank especially my mother who was forced to endure so much after she had barely given birth.” ^^
Family Life After the Khmer Rouge
Describing the life of Khmer Rouge survivor Pom Sarun after the Khmer Rouge era, Joanna R. Munson of the Documentation Center of Cambodia wrote: “Her mother, Thou Am, had been a cook for the Prince's wife in Phnom Penh. Before that, she sold sweets in the marketplace in Prey Veng Province, after her husband, Pom Soum, had abandoned the family in 1953. Her humble beginnings were a blessing, for she guided the well-educated and city-raised Sarun through the horrors of the Khmer Rouge. She taught her to farm and to be a competent villager. She taught Sarun to hide the education she had received in the best schools in Phnom Penh. [Source: Story of Pom Sarun told by Joanna R. Munson, Documentation Center of Cambodia, d.dccam.org ==]
“During this time, Sarun worked for the public schools as a teacher, and then became director of the high schools in 1987. She held this position until 1994, when she transferred to work full time at the Cambodian Brewery Limited as a sales supervisor for Region 1. Teaching was her passion, but she refused to become involved in the system of corruption, and she could not earn enough money without it. Today, Sarun works long hours in order to keep her sons in school in America. She loves them deeply, there is no question. ==
“Yet in the retelling of her life, Sarun's mother and daughter play the leading roles. Their absence is only physical; in the heart and mind, they are present and very painful. They are present in her thoughts, always, constantly. The love between mother and daughter is a fierce one, and, in the face of death, it can threaten to consume the living. But throughout her life, Sarun has fought the elements, worked as hard as she can, making the best of every situation. She has refused to be consumed, and in fact her love for her daughter led her to welcome me, a foreigner, into her home, because she saw the ghost of her daughter in my face. A stronger woman I have rarely witnessed. In her own words, "If someone can do, I can do. If can climb the palm tree, I can. If 53 or 54 years old, I can. I am not scared about this." ==
Men and Women in Cambodia
There is some divisions of labor among the Khmers but the majority of tasks can be done by either men or women. Men have traditionally plowed fields, collected sugar palm liquid, did carpentry and took care of livestock. Women have traditionally planted and transplanted rice and did household chores and took care of household chores and raising children—although men often helped out—and took care of family finances and sold and purchased rice pigs, produce and other goods. A shortage of men has meant that in many cases women have been forced to do tasks traditionally done by men. There are all-female demining teams in Cambodia.
Land and property can be owned by either men or women. Inheritance should theoretically be divided equally among children but in practice some children are given more that others. Property is given away both when a child marries and at death
Men had a much higher death rate during the Khmer Rouge years than women during the period of turmoil and this created a sex ratio skewed in the favor of women. In some places 60 to 80 percent of the adult population was made up of females in the early 2000s.
Legally, the husband is the head of the Khmer family, but the wife has considerable authority, especially in family economics. The husband is responsible for providing shelter and food for his family; the wife is generally in charge of the family budget, and she serves as the major ethical and religious model for the children, especially the daughters. In rural areas, the male is mainly responsible for such activities as plowing and harrowing the rice paddies, threshing rice, collecting sugar palm juice, caring for cattle, carpentry, and buying and selling cows and chickens. Women are mainly responsible for pulling and transplanting rice seedlings, harvesting and winnowing rice, tending gardens, making sugar, weaving, and caring for the household money. Both males and females may work at preparing the rice paddies for planting, tending the paddies, and buying and selling land. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987]
Kor Kor island is a 6.8 acre island in the Tonle Sap where 40 women and their children have set up a society without men. Most of the women are widowed or were abandoned by abusive husbands. The community was set up in part just to show that women could thrive without men, and thrive they have. The island looks organized and well-maintained—much better than nearby communities—and the women make a healthy income from garments and crafts they make. They produce nearly all their own food. Occasionally men are hired to do lifting or heavy work that women have difficulty doing. All the children go to school and most of the women say they are much happier and more optimistic about the future in this world than they were in a world with men.
Rape Risk Rises in Cambodia, Says Amnesty International
In March 2010, Guy DeLauney of BBC News wrote: “Human rights organisations in Cambodia have called for the government to tackle the rising incidence of rape. A report by Amnesty International says victims have limited access to justice, medical services and counselling. It claims that rape cases are often settled by cash payments to the victim - or bribes to the authorities. Official statistics show a significant increase of the number of rapes reported to police last year - almost a quarter more than in 2008. But Amnesty says the true figure may be much higher - because many victims never tell the authorities about their attacks. [Source: Guy DeLauney, BBC News, March 8, 2010 <>]
“The Amnesty International report highlights a lack of faith in law enforcement officials and the judicial process. One incident cited involved a policeman accused of sexually assaulting a woman in a karaoke bar. His commanding officer refused to press charges - and insisted the attack could not be considered rape, as the woman had not been a virgin. The government has acknowledged that sexual violence is a problem. In a speech last week, the minister of women's affairs said there were increasing fears of gang rape. She suggested that increasing access to alcohol, drugs and pornography was responsible. Social workers say that a change in attitude towards victims of sexual violence is sorely needed. <>
“Sun Maly runs a women's safe house in Battambang province. "When they become victims of rape like this they become stigmatised by their own community. Especially in the case of children - when they've been sexually assaulted they drop out of school because of discrimination or embarrassment," she said. Amnesty says that that many cases are currently settled by cash payments - or not pursued because the victim cannot afford to pay police and court officials. It is calling on the authorities to make sure that those who commit rape or sexual violence are punished through the judicial process.” <>
Joel Elliott of Global Post wrote: A “report from Amnesty International that found that incidents of sexual violence — especially the rape of children — have increased in recent years. Police documented 468 cases of rape, attempted rape and sexual harassment between November 2008 and November 2009, a 24-percent increase over the previous year, Amnesty reported. The portion of rapes reported to human rights organization ADHOC that involved children jumped from 67 percent in 2008 to 78 percent in 2009, and many more rapes go unreported, according to Amnesty. ADHOC, the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association, is an NGO that lobbies for better policies for providing health and education services, improving labor and food condition, reducing poverty and preventing land-grabbing. [Source: Joel Elliott, Global Post, April 16, 2010]
Rape Victims in Cambodia Suffer While Rapists Go Free
Joel Elliott of Global Post wrote: “For Meas Veasna, as with many survivors of sexual violence, rape brought only the beginning of the horror. Veasna, a 20-year-old married mother of two, was allegedly raped by a monk in her home province of Prey Veng in June 2009. Her life since that time has fallen apart; because of the stigma Cambodian culture attaches to being raped, her husband’s family will not allow her to see him or her children. She has been forced to move to Phnom Penh on her own to find work. Meanwhile, the monk remains free, never having been tried in court because he refuses to appear. [Source: Joel Elliott, Global Post, April 16, 2010 **]
“All across Cambodia, this sort of impunity enables rapists and victimizes women over and over...The incident involving Veasna occurred a few weeks after she had given birth to her second child and went to Wat Kaley pagoda for a ritual involving holy water. While she was there, a monk allegedly drugged and raped her, fleeing only when Veasna’s husband came to her rescue. Police took her statement, but since then nothing has happened, Veasna said in an interview last week. She wants justice, but is beginning to despair, as the monk refuses to appear in court and investigations have ground to a halt. Amnesty’s report suggests that a guilty verdict might vindicate Veasna and allow her to return to her family, but she has her doubts. “I want the police to arrest him, but I think it’s useless for me to continue with the case; every time I go to the police, they question me, but then there is just silence,” Veasna said. “I think my husband cannot take me back, because in his eyes I am dirty.” Her husband continues to be supportive, exerting what little pressure he can to urge police to investigate and the courts to act. **
“That a rape survivor would emerge from the incident with her reputation in tatters is not unique to Veasna, according to Sina Vann, team leader for Voices for Change, a program of the Somaly Mam Foundation. Vann herself, now 26, was taken from her home in Vietnam at the age of 12 and sold into sex slavery in Cambodia before being rescued as a teen by AFESIP (Acting for Women in Distressing Situations), another organization co-founded by Somaly Mam. Young girls or women who are raped often turn to sex work because they see no other option given the stigma that accompanies rape, she said. **
“Ironically, convicted rapists who gave interviews to Amnesty International said they experienced no stigma for their crimes. “I haven’t heard of anyone looking down on me in the village, and not here in the prison either; there are so many here who have done bad things,” one man named Meng, who was convicted and sentenced to 14 years for the rape of two girls, ages 9 and 10, told Amnesty International. **
“The report urged the Cambodian government to publicly condemn rape and other sexual violence, and to end the complacency that contributes to the impunity rapists enjoy. The government must change its policies to ensure that police investigate allegations of rape and that the courts hold rapists accountable, the report said. Cambodia, it said, also should address the government’s failures to provide victims with adequate reparations, including health and psychosocial services. **
For now, NGOs such as ADHOC are trying to pick up the slack. When she found herself essentially homeless, Veasna went to the organization, which agreed to represent her in court, and helped her find a job in Phnom Penh working with needy children. But Veasna longs for her old life. “It’s hard for me now, because I used to have my children. I used to have my husband with me,” she said. “But now, I am all alone, and lonely.”
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourism of Cambodia, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated May 2014