She was working in a field in 1976 when her bosses took her away to the barn. Waiting there was a group of frightened young people. Leum Di’s first thought: execution.
Instead, the 15 girls and 15 boys were paired up. Leum Di, then 18, knew the boy across from her only by sight; they had never spoken. The bosses, under orders of the genocidal Khmer Rouge government, told the young people to exchange scarves.
“There was a little speech that said, ‘Be good couples together,”’ Leum Di recalls. “That was it. We were married.”
Two decades later, the offspring of thousands of such shotgun weddings are reaching marriageable age, and parents like Leum Di want things to be different. They’re willing to dig deep in their pockets to provide what they never had - a traditional wedding with lots of parental involvement.
“The parents who were married under the Khmer Rouge never really accepted how it was done,” said Oum Sok, a cultural affairs official. “There are couples who later made photos of themselves in the clothes they wished they’d worn on their own weddings and couldn’t.”
The forced marriages - imposed after the Khmer Rouge took power in 1975 - insulted nearly every value Cambodians held dear. Trying to engineer a classless society, the Maoist-inspired revolutionaries paired educated with illiterate, urbanite with peasant, ugly with beautiful.
Worse, for many, was that families were not involved - a painful breach of legitimacy in a society where parents were expected to arrange or, at least, bless a marriage.
Most couples split up after the 1979 Vietnamese invasion toppled the Khmer Rouge. But some stayed together - for their children, because they had nowhere to go, or because, against the odds, they had grown to love each other.
Leum Di, now 38 with five children, is married to the same man. They had something in common: Like her, Yen Thia came from peasant stock.
“I don’t remember what I thought when I first saw him in front of me,” she says. “All I remember is that I was terrified. I didn’t dare say anything. You could get killed for that.”
The government allowed the couple to live together for one month, with no time off work. Spies watched the pair to make sure they consummated the union.
After 1979, the couple settled in Balang, a central Cambodian village of about 1,000 people, near Leum Di’s parents. They live today in a wooden house on stilts under a thatched roof.
A day’s earnings in the village is about 80 cents. Yet Leum Di and parents like her plan to spend all they can to give their children a proper wedding.
Every town in Cambodia has a wedding shop that outfits couples with white Western dresses or traditional costumes, as well as providing catering, music, cars, videotapes and photos. Shopkeepers anticipate children from forced marriages will be in for fittings during the next few years.
“Their parents will want the best,” said Khum Sa, owner of a wedding shop in Phnom Penh, the capital. “When they got married, the costume was black shirt, pants, and sandals with tire soles.”
A melange of Buddhist ritual and feasting to excess, a traditional Cambodian wedding once lasted three days. Costume changes by bride and groom were a major part of the ceremony - as many as seven outfits.
Today, most weddings last one expensive day. In Phnom Penh, a ceremony with 100 guests costs about $1,500, a sum that would break most families in a country where the average annual income is $260. Guests give cash-stuffed envelopes.
For young couples, most of whom can look forward to harsh lives, a wedding is probably their only opportunity to dress up and take center stage.
“I don’t know who my husband will be, but I want to get married the traditional way and wear beautiful clothes,” says 18-year-old Mida.
Her mother, Chouop Chanta, was forcibly married in a group of six couples in 1978. The couples shook hands under the gaze of their Khmer Rouge bosses and were considered wed.
Chouop Chanta and her husband stayed together and have six children. They plan to exercise their traditional say in whom their offspring marry - but after their own experience, they won’t be picking spouses.
“If my daughter comes home and says she loves a boy and he loves her, and she’s over 20, I will approve the marriage,” she said. “I would only refuse if she didn’t love him.”
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Costs of matrimony Costs run high for a traditional Cambodian wedding. Guests help out by giving the bride and groom cash-stuffed envelopes. Wedding expenses include: $250 for rented clothing, jewels, makeup and haircuts for the bride, groom and four witnesses. The bride and groom change costumes between four and seven times. $60 for musicians playing during the ritual haircut. $20 for a singer/master of ceremonies. $100 for a sound system and generator to run it. $100 for one professional videotape; $10 for each thereafter. $60 for three rolls of still photographs. $800 for eight-course meals for 100-120 guests. $25 for invitations. $200 for beer and soft drinks.