On any given night, foreign visitors throng the many bars, restaurants and hotels overlooking the Tonle Sap River on bustling Sisowath Quay in Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital. Among them, foreign men accompanied with Cambodian women are a common sight.
Just up the street is Rory’s Pub, where a Celtic cross and a Bushmills whiskey sign hang on the wall.
“It’s really nice here; it’s a very laid-back city,” observes the pub’s owner, 45-year-old Seattle native Chad Foucher. “There’s plenty of things to do. It’s cheap to live here, and I think that’s the draw for people to come here and live.”
Also working behind the bar is Foucher’s 23-year-old Cambodian wife, whom he married last year.
Foucher says that’s a good thing, too, since the government issued new rules governing marriage between foreign men and Cambodian women this spring. They include a minimum monthly salary requirement — which Foucher says he might not have met.
New Rules Aimed At Human Trafficking
In the more than three decades since the fall of the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia’s society has seen vast changes. In traditional Cambodian society, arranged marriages were the norm, divorce was taboo and international marriages were rare.
But the recent surge in international marriages hit a speed bump with the new regulations, which the government says are aimed at preventing human trafficking. Now, the rules say, foreign men who want to marry Cambodian women must be under 50 years old and make more than $2,550 a month.
Cambodia’s Foreign Ministry, which issued the rules, explained it as an attempt to prevent sex trafficking and pedophilia, both of which are serious problems in Cambodia and are exacerbated by widespread, grinding poverty.
The English-language Phnom Penh Post quoted Foreign Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong as offering another explanation for the regulation.
“We want people getting married to look like proper couples,” he said, not “like a grandfather and a granddaughter.”
The phenomenon of older foreign men with younger local women unsettles some Cambodians, including Mu Sochua, a liberal member of parliament, who happens to be married to an American.
“My gut feeling is when I see a difference in age — a very young woman, almost a child, with an older man — in this culture, if he is a foreigner, it’s for sure: She is bought,” Mu says.
That said, Mu opposes the new rule. She believes the best way to help Khmer women is to educate them and empower them to make more informed choices about marriage.
Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, suggests that rather than getting into the business of dictating public morality, the Cambodian government would do better to just enforce existing laws against human trafficking.
“When are we going to police marriage? When are we going to say what couples would look good together?” he asks. “Should the state get into that business? And of course, looking at the past, during the Khmer Rouge when marriages were arranged by the Khmer Rouge, by the state.”
Critics say the new rule simply serves to reinforce women’s traditional powerlessness in choosing a spouse. According to the 2005 Cambodia Demographic and Health Survey, which surveyed nearly 17,000 women across the country, 52 percent of Cambodian women said they did not participate at all in the choice of a husband; 27 percent married a man they had never seen before, or had just met within the past month.
But attitudes among Cambodia’s young are evolving quickly. The wife of bar owner Foucher, Men Soey Leap, says that she doesn’t feel bound by Cambodia’s male-dominated cultural traditions, and when she disagrees with her husband, she lets him know it.
“If my husband wants me to do this, do this, I say, ‘OK, I can do for you,’ ” she says. “But sometimes, no. I think: some good, some not. I can decide.”
Issues Of Enforceability, Unintended Consequences
Foucher doesn’t think much of the rule, and he points out that it will be hard to enforce since couples can just get married overseas, instead of in Cambodia.
“I think it’s kind of stupid because people are going to find a way, if they’re in love, to get married one way or another,” he says.
Ou, the human rights activist, says the rule is inconsistent, because it doesn’t apply to Cambodian men who can marry women of any nationality, age and income range they like.
He adds that the rule could have some absurd consequences.
“What happens if the woman is actually two years younger but the guy is over the 50 age limit?” he asks.
But Phay Siphan, Cambodia’s chief Cabinet spokesman, says critics should not get too exercised about the rule. He says that anyone who doesn’t like it can challenge it in court.
“It doesn’t mean I’m encouraging people to sue my government,” he says. “But Cambodian citizens have a right to go to court to protect their rights, the right to choose anyone as their husband and wife.”
Phay adds that the rule may even be struck down some day as unconstitutional.