University of Michigan Law School alum Theary Seng cut her hair live on Radio Free Asia this past Thursday. It was not for fashion but convenience: should she go to jail the next week, she wanted to be prepared to deal with lice.
Seng is a well-known political activist in Cambodia. She has frequently spoken out against Prime Minister Hun Sen and his government, criticizing them for abusing human rights and acting undemocratically. Now, the government has charged her with committing treason and inciting social disorder. According to Seng’s lawyer, 60 other activists, most of whom reside out of the country, have been charged with similar counts.
“It’s a show trial,” Seng said in an interview with The Michigan Daily.
Human rights defenders have criticized the Hun Sen government for politically-motivated trials used to imprison dozens of journalists, activists and members of the opposition party.
Still, Seng is adamant about showing up to court. At 8:30 a.m. on Thanksgiving Day, Seng will defend herself against a jury that is likely heavily influenced by the government. She will also go to court without having received an indictment, meaning that she doesn’t know what evidence the government will present against her.
According to Jared Genser, a fellow Michigan Law alum who has worked with political dissidents, this is a violation of both Cambodian and international law. Genser is representing Seng pro bono.
“What’s happening to Theary is, unfortunately, part of a much bigger pattern and practice of repression of human rights in Cambodia,” he said.
Seng’s former Michigan Law classmate Glenn Kaminsky organized a GoFundMe to pay for her legal expenses. They have crowdfunded a little under $13,000 as of Monday afternoon
Seng sought refuge in the United States at age nine after both her parents were murdered by the Khmer Rouge. She and her brother moved to Michigan in the middle of the winter in 1980, calling the transition to cold weather and a new culture “baptism by fire.”
Seng said she considers Michigan her home in the U.S.
“Oh, I love Michigan with all my heart,” she said. “It was my first introduction to the United States.”
But her goal was always to return to Cambodia. After receiving her law degree from the University, Seng returned to her birth country. Eventually, she ended up working for several years at the Center for Social Development, a prominent nongovernmental organization in Cambodia.
Public Policy professor John Ciorciari, an expert on international law who worked on memory and justice efforts in Cambodia, praised Seng’s advocacy.
“Everyone in the sector knows Theary,” Ciorciari said. “She’s a very vocal opponent of the government, and has been courageous in criticizing the government even during these last several years when criticizing the government has been a particularly risky proposition.”
Her fight in opposition to Cambodia’s government has required personal sacrifices. Seng decided to never marry or have children because any “entanglement” could put others at risk.
“I’ve always been open unconsciously to the possibility of imprisonment,” she said. “I don’t have a husband, I don’t have children whom they can hurt. I don’t have private property that they can rip off. So in this regard, I’m the most independent, I’m the most free person inside the country.”
After the summons, Seng chose to stay in the country when she could have fled to the U.S. or elsewhere. She said this is what the government wanted because if she left, she would not be able to return to Cambodia.
She called the summons an act of insecurity.
“Why else are they coming after a fragile or fragile-looking 50-year-old woman who walks around in heels? Me?” Seng asked. “I don’t have bodyguards. I don’t have security. I only have a dog.”
While activists have been targeted for criticizing the government, Seng’s status as a U.S. citizen makes her case unique.
“I’m not unaware of the power of U.S. citizenship and I’m using that,” she said. “I will use whatever tools I have.”
Seng said the repression of activists and those critical of the government is a strategy to stifle dissent.
“They use physical tools, they use the weapons of violence,” Seng added. “We have our own weapons, as peacemakers. Truth is its own weapon. These are not fluffy, flowery sentiments — I really believe this. And I really believe in the power of solidarity among people who love democracy, who love freedom of expression.”
Typically, U.S. citizenship might have made the government hesitate to charge an activist, according to Ciorciari.
“It’s not surprising at all that activists are getting hauled into court by this government,” Ciorciari said. “That is their strategy, that is how they defanged the opposition, is to use carrots and sticks, primarily sticks associated with the judicial system. What is a bit surprising to me is that Theary is Cambodian American. In the past, I would have not expected this government to arrest and charge somebody who has American citizenship.”
But the country’s political situation and relationship with the U.S. has changed in the last few years. The Cambodian government, which long had a tense relationship with the U.S. government, decided in 2017 to stop giving special treatment or protection to people associated with the U.S., Ciorciari said. They kicked out the National Democratic Institute Office in Cambodia and shut down The Cambodia Daily, an English-language newspaper that was largely run by Americans.
This comes as China asserts growing influence in Cambodia, lending money and a degree of political installation, Ciorciari said. The Trump administration’s “strongman tactics and downplaying of the human rights agenda” may have also been a factor in the government’s decision to move against the NDI and The Cambodia Daily, he said.
After Seng decided to stay in the country and go to court, she put her chances of imprisonment at 90%. Now, with increasing attention to her case, which she thanks Genser and other friends for, she puts her chances of imprisonment at 50%.
Public awareness is, in fact, a key strategy for her case. Genser has asked the U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia to attend Seng’s trial with her and mobilize support from other foreign embassies.
“These trials are often held in secret, despite the requirements of international law to be public and open to the public,” he said. “By having diplomats from the U.S. and from other governments attend and try to make their way into the tribunal it becomes much, much harder for the government of Cambodia to have the trial be closed … (That) can be very, very helpful to establishing the arbitrary nature of the tension.”
Gesner also submitted an urgent action appeal on Monday to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia and the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression.
Ciorciari said the trials of Seng and other dissidents should be seen through a political lens, instead of a juridical one. He urged the U.S. government to step in.
“If the United States government and others, including European governments, including non-state actors, if they don’t come to the support of Theary and other activists who are facing these trials, the chances of the people on trial for a fair outcome are greatly diminished,” he said.
Ciorciari called Seng’s case a watershed moment and an opportunity for the U.S. to prove its commitment to human rights instead of engaging in a “race to the bottom” on rule of law and governance standards with China.
“If the U.S. government is not willing to stand up and voice support in this type of case, it’s hard to imagine preserving any credibility in the region as a defender of democracy and human rights,” he said.
Seng has already met with the U.S. embassy. Should she be imprisoned, they agreed to visit once a month and bring her toiletries. She still wanted to cut her hair just in case.
“I thought of the uncertainty of being able to shampoo regularly and having lice and scabies and all that,” Seng said. “So I’m prepared physically, but I’m also prepared mentally.”
Her background encouraged her to stay and fight, she said, despite knowing the regime well and what it’s capable of. Seng said her friends have been gunned down in broad daylight by the Hun Sen government.
She is particularly worried that the current conditions of the government are similar to the conditions prior to the Khmer Rouge, which killed both her parents.
“I cannot imagine as an adult to have Khmer Rouge part two,” Seng said. “ … All the regional and global actors who were responsible to whatever degree for the rights of the Khmer Rouge are present here. I’m not overdramatizing this. It’s just stating the urgency and the seriousness of the matter and the militarization of Cambodia. China has so many military bases in Cambodia, and it's buying up land across the country.”
“So everyone should pay attention because Cambodia is very fragile, it’s very durable and under the influence of China right now, that is a serious concern,” she said. “The conditions of pre-Khmer Rouge are here.”
This article was written by Zayna Syed for the Michigan Daily and can be seen here.