A Cambodian Genocide Survivor Opts to Fight, Not Flee

As a child, Theary Seng escaped Cambodia’s killing fields. After returning there as a human rights advocate, she angered the country’s strongman leader. But she refuses to be driven away again. Credit ...Andy Ball NYTimes

The New York Times

Aug. 6, 2021

The Saturday Profile

By Seth Mydans

BANGKOK — Only a small child when the Khmer Rouge seized power in 1975 and soon made her an orphan, Theary Seng has two enduring memories from that time in Cambodia’s tortured history.

In one, she had fallen asleep in the arms of her mother only to wake up to 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 stink of human flesh, very, very clearly,” she said. “That’s a personal memory, the stench of death. I was 7 years old. My job was to pick up cow manure for fertilizer. I would wander 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, is back in Cambodia and confronting a new ordeal: She has been charged with treason.

She returned to Cambodia in 2004 to help build democracy in her wounded country, becoming an irritant to the strongman, Prime Minister Hun Sen, who considers human rights advocates like her as adversaries.

Last November, she found herself on a list of some 130 government opponents and critics who were facing a mass political trial, part of a drive by the prime minister to crush resistance and secure his one-man rule.

The charges against her, “conspiracy to commit treason” and “incitement to create social disorder,” which carry up to 12 years in prison, are “absurd,” she said. “Blatantly, on their face, they are baseless and not based in law or fact.”

In a show of determination and defiance, one of the first things Ms. Theary Seng did when she learned of the charges against her was to lop off her hair.

Ms. Theary Seng in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital, in January. There is “no democratic or civic space left” in the country, she said.Credit...Tang Chhin Sothy/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

She used a large pair of green-handled scissors and livestreamed her gesture in a video broadcast on Radio Free Asia. “I know that they will detain me, so I am cutting my hair short because I’m afraid of the lice in prison,” she declared.

For the nine months since then, Ms. Theary Seng, 50, has lived at home on the outskirts of Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, in a torment of uncertainty, without word on when her case will be heard even as the trial proceeds with some of the other defendants.

A flare-up of Covid in Cambodian jails has added another layer of fear about what detention could mean.

Her haircut was a flamboyant gesture, but also a serious assertion that she had no intention of using her American passport to flee, as the government might have hoped she would.

“I’m not going to be driven away from my homeland in the way I was driven away as a refugee,” she said.

As she describes herself 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 took the lives of perhaps one-fourth of the country’s population in the late 1970s, including her parents.

In 1979, at the age of 7, she made a dangerous journey with several relatives across the border into Thailand. After a year in a refugee camp, her family was taken in by a Christian congregation in Grand Rapids, Mich.

She would later graduate from Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service and go on to earn a law degree from the University of Michigan.

And then, 17 years ago, like a small number of other idealistic refugees, she went back to Cambodia to take part in a revival of its civic life, becoming a leading social justice advocate.

She took a position as executive director of a human rights organization, the Center for Social Development, and then founded the Cambodian Center for Justice and Reconciliation as well as the Center for Cambodian Civic Education.

Her goal, she said, was “to stem Cambodia’s complete plunge into au