Theary Seng's story is one of hope over adversity. As a child, she
lived through the brutal Khmer Rouge years, before fleeing to the
United States, where she studied to become a lawyer. Now, she is back
in Cambodia, promoting human rights. As head of the Center for Social
Development, Theary Seng is an outspoken critic of corruption and abuse
wherever it exists. Rory Byrne has this report for VOA's Making a
Human rights activist Theary Seng has been
shaped by her country's tragic history. As a child, she collected cow
dung among the graves of the victims of the Khmer Rouge to fertilize
the crops. Her parents died at the hands of the ultra-Maoist group,
which ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979.
During their four
years in power under the extreme-Communist leader Pol Pot, the Khmer
Rouge were responsible for the death of at least 1.5 million Cambodians
killed by political executions, starvation or forced labor. In late
1978, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge fled to the countryside following
invasion by neighbor and former ally Vietnam. The 10-year Vietnamese
occupation (1979 - 1989) touched off almost 13 years of civil war in
After the fall of the Khmer Rouge, Theary escaped to Thailand and then the United States, where she became a lawyer.
she is back in Cambodia, working to help her impoverished country. "So,
for me, it's to take my history and the loss of my parents and to shape
it, to not let the Khmer Rouge leaders have the better of me - by
making it into something more hopeful," she explains.
heads the Center for Social Development, which works to overcome the
dark chapter of the Khmer Rouge. "The Khmer Rouge years have scarred
our psychology," she says. "There is a lot of beauty [in Cambodia], but
it's unfortunately overwhelmed by all these social problems and ills of
our current society."
Theary also speaks out against abuses
around the world. At a recent demonstration in Phnom Penh, she tried to
lay a wreath to honor those killed in the civil war in Sudan's Darfur
region. Government officials prevented her from doing so.
takes a special interest in the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, or KRT, which is
starting to prosecute the group's leaders for their crimes. She serves
as an official tribunal representative for the victims. "I see the
opportunity for other voices to join mine, and to enlarge the space
where other voices could be heard in addition to mine," says Theary.
thing about Theary Seng is that she is unique in Cambodia, because she
is able to bridge the chasm between America's view of things and
Cambodia's understanding of the world," says US Ambassador to Cambodia
Joseph Mussomeli. "Whether it's the KRT process or justice in general,
or corruption issues, or land issues, Theary adds a certain dimension
that is very unique and very special."
The activist, author
and attorney uses every opportunity to promote human rights in
Cambodia. She even hosts a TV show looking to find the country's next
generation of youth leaders.
"Really, my work here is not to
do anything big, but to be a common citizen back in my homeland, where
I've suffered a lot," says Theary. "And now, I'm taking that suffering,
and shaping it into hope, and trying to work with individuals who had
not the time and space to heal that I've had."
It has been a
long journey for Theary Seng, from a child slave under the Khmer Rouge
to a gifted voice of fellow citizens striving to overcome their
country's terrible past.