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

Young Theary Seng lived through the brutal Khmer Rouge years before fleeing to the Unites States, where she studied law. Seng is now back in Cambodia promoting human rights.

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.

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 says.

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. There is a lot of beauty (now), 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 (KRT.) The tribunal is starting to prosecute the group's leaders for their crimes. Theary 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," she says.

Joseph Mussomeli is the U.S. ambassador to Cambodia.

"The thing about Theary Seng is that she is unique in Cambodia. She is able to bridge the chasm between America's view of things and Cambodia's understanding of the world. 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," he says.

The activist, author and attorney uses every opportunity to promote human rights in Cambodia. She hosts a TV show seeking out 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. And, now, I'm taking that suffering, and shaping it into hope." She says she is trying to work with people "who have not had the time and space to heal that I've had."

Theary Seng has come a long way from her days as a child laborer under the Khmer Rouge. Today, she plays an important role in helping bring to justice those responsible for the horrors of that time.