A new study focused on sexual violence perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in the 1970s has found that women from the country’s Cham Muslim minority were intentionally targeted.
The rule of the ultra-Maoist group, which seized control in 1975 and controlled the country for four years, saw around 1.7 million people killed through execution, starvation and overwork. Under the Khmer Rouge regime, all religion - the main faith being Buddhism - was banned, and places of worship and religious documents destroyed.
There were about 200,000 Cham Muslims - originally believed to have come to Cambodia from the ancient kingdom of Champa in what is now Vietnam centuries before - when the Khmer Rouge took over. At least a third of them were killed during the regime, according to Minority Rights Group International.
There is a population of about 400,000 Cham Muslims living in Cambodia today.
A United Nations-backed war crimes court in Phnom Penh is currently trying the surviving leaders of the regime for crimes against humanity, but charges of genocide relate specifically to the minority ethnic Vietnamese and Cham Muslims—many of whom have testified as civil parties, or witnesses.
“Religion was reviled by the Khmer Rouge. Muslim communities were particularly targeted because of their different language, food customs, clothing and prayer,” the new study, produced by local legal aid group The Cambodian Defenders Project (CDP) and based on interviews with 105 survivors and witnesses, reads.
“Within this xenophobic environment, sexual violence appears to have been another method by which the Khmer Rouge persecuted minorities,” it continues.
“Respondents reported that sexual abuse and rape of Cham women were commonplace at worksites and cooperatives,” the study says, referring to the large worker co-ops established in the Khmer Rouge’s failed attempt to create an agrarian utopia.
“Further, Cham victims were silenced by their offenders with threats... or were raped before execution.”
A recent book by Cham Muslim academic Farina So titled “The Hijab of Cambodia: Memories of Cham Muslim Women After the Khmer Rouge,” also details cases of Cham women being forced to marry Khmer husbands for the purpose of breaking up the specific ethnic groups.
Interviewed for the study about forced marriage, one unnamed Muslim respondent said: "I was forced to make a commitment [to marry]... I was very small. I was just over 10 years old... How could I protest?”
Another respondent added that after marriage: ”We were spied [upon to see] if we had sexual intercourse.”
One Khmer Muslim recounted the brutal gang rape of a Cham woman, saying a Khmer Rouge cadre "wanted her when he saw that she was very beautiful. Her husband was taken to be killed. Four men had sex with her... and she was [then] taken to be killed.”
In yet another tale, a respondent detailed how some Khmer Muslim women were forced into sexual slavery, being made to provide nightly sex to groups of young militiamen.
“About ten beautiful [Khmer and Khmer Islam] women were kept for rape.... After three to seven days of rape, they were killed,” she said.
Few people who experienced sexual violence under the regime spoke of it for fear of retribution and even those who witnessed such incidents were careful to remain silent, according to the study.
“She was raped by three men... one Khmer asked if I knew the Cham woman who was killed and if that one is my relative. I said that I did not know her. During that time, if we said we know [a victim], they will kill us altogether.”
Asked by the researcher if she did in fact know the victim, the respondent answered: “Yes... she was my aunt.”
The study, which was funded in part by the German government, is focused on minority groups - the Cham, the Ethnic Vietnamese and another group known as the Khmer Krom—but it stresses that it is important to note that many other ordinary Khmer women faced the same sexual suffering at the hands of the Khmer Rouge.
However, as one Muslim respondent put it: “They hated the Khmer Muslim. They just had to rape them... They persecuted the Khmer Muslim.”
“Efforts to extinguish Cham culture and ethnicity [including though mass executions] would have created an ideal environment for sexual violence to flourish,” the study says.