Rape during the Khmer Rouge

Rape during the Khmer Rouge and the subsequent period of civil war, is commonly viewed as a rare occurrence which was unrelated to the context of conflict. This assumption is based on lack of statistics and a Khmer Rouge official policy that pronounced punishments for so-called “moral offenses”. This policy, also known as Code No. 6, prohibited sexual relations between unmarried couples, with the possibility of both parties being executed if discovered.  There is a strong evidence base that suggests that this policy was inconsistently implemented, if implemented at all, and that it was not an effective deterrent for rape and other sexual violations. Further, all sexual relations outside of marriage were prohibited under Code No. 6 and classified as immoral acts, which suggests that the Code was less concerned with protecting women from sexual violence by state actors and more to do with regulating sexual activity as a means of subordinating human relations to the aims of the revolution. Another factor leading to the persistence of the myth that sexual violence did not occur under the Khmer Rouge is that most survivors of sexual crimes have been silent about their suffering for over thirty years.


However, survivors are beginning to come forward and first-hand accounts by rape survivors and witnesses that have emerged in the last few years based upon civil society advocacy efforts are beginning to disprove this myth. Up until today, only two studies have endeavored to uncover the truth behind the myth that rape did not happen under the Khmer Rouge:

Kasumi Nakagawa, Gender-Based Violence during the Khmer Rouge Regime: Stories of Survivors from the Democratic Kampuchea (1975-1979), Cambodian Defenders Project, 2008.

To download go to Research and Documentation.

Katrina Natale, “I Could Feel My Soul Flying Away” – A Study on Gender-Based Violence during Democratic Kampuchea in Battambang and Svay Rieng Provinces, Cambodian Defenders Project, 2011.

To download go to Research and Documentation.

Other studies were not specifically targeted to address this issue but still produced some ancillary data. For example, in a 1990 study on the psychological effects of conflict conducted at a Thai border camp, 17 percent of the 993 Cambodian refugees surveyed reported that had been subjected to some form of sexual abuse, including rape, during the Democratic Kampuchea period (F. Mollica, et al., The Effect of Trauma and Confinement on Functional Health and Mental Health Status of Cambodians Living in Thailand-Cambodia Border Camps 581, 270 Journal of the American Medical Association, 1993).

Characteristics of Rape Cases

The two studies specifically dedicated to looking at GBV during the Khmer Rouge period could not produce a countrywide representative prevalence figure. However, a number of characteristics could be identified.

– First, all perpetrators reported were Khmer Rouge cadres, none of the reported cases of rape was committed by civilians in that period.

– The victims on the other hand originated from all sectors of society, including low ranking cadres, and were nearly all female.

– A wide variety of rape scenarios was reported including gang and mass rapes, especially prior to executions at killing sites, rapes in Khmer Rouge installations and cooperatives, rapes with foreign objects, rapes through sexual exploitation and sexual slavery, attempted rape, and rape which occurred in the periods of conflict both before and after the regime.

– Certain groups of the population who were persecuted by the Khmer Rouge as enemies, in particular ethnic groups such as the Vietnamese minority, were more often targeted.

Punishment of Perpetrators

The studies also showed that perpetrators were very rarely punished. For those that were subjected to some sort of penalty, it was not clearly characterized as the crime of rape, and quite often their charge was completely unrelated. In some cases, both the victim and the perpetrator were killed for committing “moral offenses”. The Government policy of punishing any sexual relationships outside of marriage sanctioned or arranged by the state allowed perpetrators to act behind a veil of impunity, knowing their victims would be unable to report the assault without risking punishment themselves.

Unknown Prevalence of Rape

Both studies referred to were only qualitative in nature. Representative quantitative studies have not been conducted so far so that the prevalence rate and the number of survivors today remains in the dark.

Rape Against Men

It needs to be acknowledged that sexual crimes were most definitely also committed against men during this time, however there have been no studies on this subject and therefore there is no way to know the extent that this occurred.