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Making a Difference - Cambodia's Theary Seng Works to Heal Her Country


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 Difference series.

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 Cambodia.

After the fall of the Khmer Rouge, Theary escaped to Thailand and then the United States, where she became a lawyer.

Now 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.

Theary 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.

Theary 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.

"The 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.

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