The 1975 seizure of power by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia saw an immediate and radical reorganization of society, with the forcible relocation of city-dwellers to the countryside, the creation of labor brigades, and heightened religious persecution. Many people were targeted in a 4-year long genocide, including—but not limited to—intellectuals, Chams, Vietnamese Cambodians, and many more. This genocide claimed between 1.5 and 2 million lives, nearly a quarter of the Cambodian population. Although Cambodia has transitioned back to a functional democracy during the 28 years that have followed the ratification of its constitution, the ghosts of the country’s past continue to haunt its citizens today. Theary Seng, a survivor of the genocide, speaks to this phenomenon better than possibly anybody.
Ms. Theary Seng was a child when the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975. She vividly remembers the last night she fell asleep in her mother’s arms, and the first time she woke up and knew her mother was no longer with her on Earth. Describing it as her “first spiritual experience,” Seng recalled how, even though no one had told her otherwise, she knew that her mother had become a victim to the Khmer Rouge as she slept.
Since the end of the Khmer Rouge’s rule, Ms. Theary Seng has made a name for herself outside of Cambodia. She left her home country in 1979, after the Vietnamese defeated the Khmer Rouge, and pursued a life in the United States. She received her undergraduate degree from Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service and her JD from the University of Michigan’s Law School in the year 2000. She now works as a human rights activist and lawyer, and returned to Cambodia in 2004 to help build democracy—but the welcome she received was not exactly what she was expecting.
Seng’s work quickly caught the eye of Prime Minister Hun Sen, a strongman who is notoriously ruthless towards his political opponents. In November of 2020, the Cambodian government released a list of 130 individuals, all classified as political opponents and critics by the prime minister because of their perceived threat to his rule. All 130 charged were to have their fates decided in a mass political trial. Upon reading the list, Ms. Theary Seng found that she was among them.
Seng’s charges included “conspiracy to commit treason” as well as “incitement to create social disorder.” She immediately spoke out about the illegitimacy of the charges, criticizing them for not being based on law or fact.
Although Seng has not been brought to court yet, she lives her life in a constant state of uncertainty. The Cambodian government has not communicated any details about her trial or detainment, leaving her to wonder just how much of her future hangs in the balance. Still, Seng remains fiercely dedicated to her mission and the people of Cambodia.
“I’m not going to be driven away from my homeland in the way I was driven away as a refugee,” she said.
Living a life as a human rights activist in a notoriously anti-activist country, Seng has had to make a series of sacrifices in the name of her work. At the age of 50, she remains firm in her stance that she does not want to marry, have children, or own private property, as she does not want to possess anything that the government could use against her if she were to be arrested and tortured. Ms. Theary Seng values the freedom she retains as an independent woman—even when that freedom is at risk of being taken away from her by the people she has dedicated her life to fighting against.
As the jaws of uncertainty gnawed at her mind over the last year, Seng found herself called to a passion that some may find unusual: punctuation.
Ms. Theary Seng’s latest project is a more-correct translation of the Bible into Khmer, a language that is traditionally written without punctuation. A great majority of her work consists of her making simple grammatical edits such as inserting commas. Seng, while culturally a Buddhist, identifies her beliefs as Judeo-Christian.
In a 2010 interview with the Berkeley Center at Georgetown University, Seng elaborated on how her faith impacts her quest for justice in Cambodia. Beyond just legal justice, she discussed social justice, horizontal justice and vertical justice. Horizontal justice—justice between the perpetrator and the victim—is the most personal for her. She discussed how her personal element of forgiveness fits into the complex relationship she has with the multiple justices, and the bounds of which that forgiveness fit into.
“For example, I didn’t suffer under Duch, but let’s imagine that I lost my parents under Duch and I forgive him. That doesn’t mean that my forgiveness should acquit him of his crimes. The state has the right to prosecute him, which is vertical justice. I don’t have the rights or the authority of the state to give him a reprieve, only the state can do that,” said Seng.
When asked what she thought of the Khmer Rouge leaders converting to Christianity, Seng said that she did not believe all the conversions were genuine but did acknowledge that some could have been so.
In the same interview, Ms. Theary Seng discussed how Cambodia’s current level of development is affecting women. Khmer, the official language of Cambodia, has a vocabulary that gives a lot of value to women; traditionally female prefixes tend to be honorable ones. Seng laments how her country’s treatment of women today seems to be in direct contrast to this and explains how today women are treated as second-class citizens. She identified human trafficking as the most pressing problem and placed an emphasis on sex trafficking.
Seng criticized the government and the hostile, distrusting relationship that citizens have with it, for its role in allowing trafficking and prostitution to become such prevalent problems. She acknowledged that distrust in the government existed long before the horrific events of 1975-1979, but cited the Khmer Rouge as the reason that citizens have practically no trust in the modern government. This lack of trust, according to Seng, creates a series of other problems within society—with no basis for emotional bonds, she argues that an intrinsic element of the family unit is absent, and thus families cannot truly be complete. According to Seng, this could be why as many as 90 percent of girls that have been sold into prostitution have been sold by their parents.
Ms. Theary Seng, while faced with seemingly insurmountable challenges, still holds strong in her beliefs and her mission. She refuses to be driven from her country for a second time, no matter how turbulent the political situation in Cambodia gets.
“I’ve been a rights advocate all my adult life,” she said. “I wouldn’t just step away from it now. All my years of human rights training would be null and void if I didn’t stay and fight.”
Ms. Theary Seng is the author of Daughter of the Killing Fields, which details her experiences in the Khmer Rouge’s Cambodia as a child. Published in 2005, the book is available for purchase on Amazon.