Charged With Treason, a Genocide Survivor Opts to Fight, Not Flee
BANGKOK – Only as a child when the Khmer Rouge seized power in 1975 and quickly orphaned her, Theary Seng has two lasting memories of this time in Cambodia’s tortured history.
In one, she fell asleep in her mother’s arms only to wake up and find her gone. “It was my first spiritual experience,” she said, “when I knew without anyone telling me that my mother was not on this earth.”
The other is a sensory memory.
“I remember the stench of human flesh, very, very clearly,” she said. “It’s a personal memory, the stench of death. I was 7 years old. My job was to collect cow manure for fertilizer. I was wandering in the fields, and the fields were just covered with graves.
Four decades later, Ms. Theary Seng, a human rights lawyer who now holds an American passport, returns to Cambodia and faces a new ordeal: she has been accused of treason.
She returned to Cambodia in 2004 to help build democracy in her wounded country, becoming an irritant to strongman Prime Minister Hun Sen, who views human rights defenders like her as adversaries.
Last November, she found herself on a list of some 130 opponents and critics of the government facing a mass political trial, as part of the prime minister’s campaign to crush the resistance and secure his reign. of one man.
The charges against her, “conspiracy to commit treason” and “inciting social disorder”, punishable by 12 years in prison, are “absurd,” she said. “Obviously, at first glance, they are unfounded and not based on law or fact. “
In a display of determination and challenge, one of the first things Ms. Theary Seng did when she learned of the charges against her was cut her hair.
She used a large pair of green-handled scissors and broadcast her gesture live in a video broadcast on Radio Free Asia. “I know they’re going to hold me back, so I’m cutting my hair short because I’m scared of lice in prison,” she said.
For nine months, Ms. Theary Seng, 50, has lived in her home on the outskirts of the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, in a turmoil of uncertainty, not knowing when her case will be heard even as the trial unfolds with some of the other defendants.
A Covid outbreak in Cambodian prisons has added another layer of fear as to what detention could mean.
Her haircut was a flamboyant gesture, but also a serious assertion that she had no intention of using her U.S. passport to flee, as the government might have hoped.
“I am not going to be kicked out of my homeland the same way I was kicked out as a refugee,” she said.
As described in the title of her autobiography, Ms. Theary Seng is a “Daughter of the Killing Fields” who survived the four-year genocide at the hands of the Communist Khmer Rouge that claimed the lives of perhaps a quarter of the population of the country in the late 1970s, including its parents.
In 1979, at the age of 7, she took a dangerous journey with several parents across the Thai border. After a year in a refugee camp, her family was taken in by a Christian congregation in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
She would later graduate from the Georgetown School of Foreign Service and obtain a law degree from the University of Michigan.
And then, 17 years ago, like a small number of other idealistic refugees, she returned to Cambodia to participate in a renewal of her civic life, becoming a strong advocate for social justice.
She served as the executive director of a human rights organization, the Center for Social Development, then founded the Cambodian Center for Justice and Reconciliation as well as the Cambodian Civic Education Center.
Its aim, she said, was “to stem Cambodia’s complete plunge into autocracy” by advertising and campaigning against political and human rights violations. In addition, she assisted potential witnesses at a trial of Khmer Rouge leaders, where she also testified as a victim.
“There was so much hope when I entered civil society,” she said.
But nearly two decades later, as the crackdown on Mr. Hun Sen intensified, “there is no longer democratic or civic space,” she said.
Staying to fight what she called a political struggle rather than a legal process was a matter of principle – and something she has been preparing for a long time.
“I don’t have a family, I don’t have a husband or children they could threaten, and I don’t have private property,” she said. “I made a deliberate choice that if I continue to work in the field of human rights and defend human rights, I will remain free and free.
The US State Department criticized the lawsuit, saying, “We urge Cambodia to drop these baseless accusations against human rights defenders.
The US Embassy and the American Bar Association have said they will send observers if Ms Theary Seng is called into a courtroom.
“Theary has been a courageous champion of democracy and social justice in Cambodia for many years,” said John D. Ciorciari, associate professor of international politics at the University of Michigan and expert on Cambodia. “While government repression has reduced the space for democratic political dissent, it has courageously stood up against authoritarianism.”
By justifying the arrests and its broader crackdown on the opposition, the Cambodian government appears to be claiming that its critics are part of a coordinated effort to overthrow the government.
Amnesty International Asia-Pacific Director Yamini Mishra said in a January statement that “the government’s assault on cases is the culmination of a relentless campaign of persecution against the Cambodian political opposition and others. dissenting voices ”.
The challenges Ms. Theary Seng now faces after this initially hopeful journey home have brought her childhood trials full circle.
Too young to understand or remember much of what she went through, she said much of her autobiographical account was taken from many hours of interviews with family members.
She said the two horrific memories that remained with her were mostly erased until her teenage years.
“Living the genocide caught up with me and I was chronically suicidal in high school,” she said. “What saved me was calligraphy. I wrote the whole Book of Psalms in calligraphy. I had this pile of parchment.
The Psalms were more than poetry to her. At Millbrook Reformed Christian Church in Grand Rapids, she became a committed Christian.
“I am culturally Buddhist,” she said. “I have no problem respecting and attending Buddhist ceremonies. But my belief system is Judeo-Christian.
While waiting for the next government decision, it is not calligraphy but punctuation that helps him cope with the stress of the unknown.
She corrects a translation of the Bible in Khmer, a language written without punctuation or spaces between words. She improves on what she says are translation errors, and a big part of her project is just putting commas.
In her own writings, she concluded her autobiography with what she describes as “one of the most surreal events of her life”, an encounter with the Khmer Rouge leader whom she holds responsible for the death of her parents. .
In the remote town of Pailin in 2002, before returning to Cambodia to stay, she visited Khieu Samphan, who was later found guilty of genocide by a UN-backed tribunal.
“I found myself face to face with evil incarnate, the murderer of my parents,” she wrote. “Instead of revulsion, a perverse sense of dread first captured my emotions – for evil was not mad, but charming, gracious, and grandfather.”
They had what she calls “a polite conversation of one hour and ten minutes”, during which Mr. Khieu Samphan explained by rote that he had no idea what was going on under her direction.
“I can honestly say that I did not feel any anger towards him, and I was surprised at how calm I was,” she wrote. But later, she found herself “amazed, time and time again, by Khieu Samphan’s ability to live with himself.”
Mr. Khieu Samphan is now the last living leader of the Khmer Rouge, and his pro forma appeal for his conviction and life sentence is the last major agenda of the long-standing court.
“We live in a sea of abuse, so the tribunal is not even on our radar,” Theary Seng said, as Cambodia struggles through a whole new set of political trauma nearly a half century after the genocide from which he managed to escape.
This time, she is determined to stay.
“I have been defending rights all my adult life,” she said. “I wouldn’t want to just walk away from it now. All my years of human rights training would be null and void if I didn’t stay and fight.
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