in different times ...
From 1975 to 1979, when the Khmer Rouge were in power, any act or expression of love was forbidden. Mostly those found to have romantic relationships were executed, as the party, ‘Angkar’, was the one to choose couples to marry. Even so, there were some rare instances when people, especially women, could object to forced marriage.
Fast forward to the present, where such a law no longer exists. Instead, cultural norms and social stigmas have become the dominant forces in determining what is appropriate in terms of showing one’s affections.
We are curious to explore how these two different times influence the way people love one another.
In Cambodian culture, before going through a traditional ceremony, we, as couple, have to be careful with our actions.
Back then, during Khmer Rouge
Mey Phally, 56, was a teenager during the Pol Pot regime. A man who fancied her told his parents to talk to her parents to marry her. She had never met him before, didn't know him. Both her parents and the man’s parents couldn’t decide by themselves either. They had to ask for Angkar’s permission to talk to her about the marriage. However, in this rare case, Angkar said it was unnecessary, and she didn't have to marry that man.
Phally knew one couple who was in love during the regime. She and the woman were in the same work group and she used to accompany her to when she wanted to meet her lover. There was no house or convenient place to meet. So they just met up somewhere near the forest after work. "I accompanied her and sat a little further away when they met up," says Phally.
Unfortunately, that couple didn’t end up being together because of discrimination between the old residents and the newcomers. The woman was a newcomer, whereas the man originally lived there and was also a Khmer rouge soldier. They liked each other, and had already asked Angkar whether they could get married. But the woman’s parents rejected the marriage because they didn’t want her to marry a soldier.
Noy Sitha, a 65-year-old transgender man, realized as a child that he was a man stuck in a woman's body but he could not express it. When he got older, during the Khmer Rouge regime he of course had to live with other women - but that meant that there was no barrier between him and the woman he loved. Sitha and his partner started living together at that time and still do so today. However, after the Khmer Rouge regime collapsed and they were reunited with their family members, they faced pressure from relatives and society about their same sex relationship. Both of them still managed to continue their partnership regardless of the criticism they were exposed to.
Today, in modern society
Now, over four decades after the regime has fallen, Cambodia is no longer the bleak state it used to be. The government does not claim to have a say in how couples get married. Culture has risen once again to be the driving force determining what shape and form love can take. Today's young people are facing rules - spoken or unspoken - that determine what kind of actions are appropriate or not in their relationships.
Ngov Chhunheang, a third year student majoring in English, found his love three years ago. With the cultural norms he grew up in and the advice from parents and relatives, they have to be very careful going out together as couple. That external pressure sets a lot of limits to their their privacy. Any public display of affection is deemed inappropriate and he is very aware of that, especially in public places. Violating those unwritten rules may not only affect his own reputation but that of his family as well. The day when he will publicly announce his relationship is the day he hopes to get his family’s blessing for the traditional wedding ceremony.
Bo Sakalkitya, a 26-year-old freelance production designer, had always felt he was more feminine than his peers. He also noticed he had crushes on boys and when he was around 18 had his first serious relationship with another man. In public, he faced the judgmental stares of others when they displayed any sort of affections toward each other. Despite this, he decided to stand by his feelings and express them wholeheartedly. His friends, and especially his sister, supported him in his decision. However, his parents do not accept his homosexuality and continue to encourage him to marry a girl.
After talking to both the old and young generation, we can see that love can survive even in the toughest of times and defy constraints posed by society. Still, as in the case of Chunheang, the respect for what is deemed appropriate in terms of expressing love in Cambodian society remains a relevant factor. As our society continues to develop and become more globalized, it will be interesting to see what form the expression of love will take in today’s generation and the next.