As Cambodia tries members of the Khmer Rouge for genocide and crimes against humanity, renowned lawyer, activist, and survivor of the killing fields Theary Seng pursues a long-awaited healing for her people.
My life’s journey has been one in passionate pursuit of peace—of mind, of heart, of home. It has been a selfish pursuit, in search of a way to quiet the violent restlessness and turmoil broiling within and without me, to quiet the consuming angst of being born Cambodian.
How to explain my homeland? The trafficking of human beings; the land evictions that strip those already dangerously poor of their homes and their livelihoods? The disdain and neglect of Cambodia’s majority, the poor and vulnerable? How to explain the staggering rates of domestic violence? The culture of corruption and abuse? How to explain Cambodia?
It is not possible to understand these things, to understand our current culture of fear and impunity, without first knowing the destruction wreaked by the Khmer Rouge during the 1970s. Now that the Khmer Rouge trials are finally upon us, at last buried truths can begin to surface and our country can move forward. Yet, beyond the courtroom, there are now endless stories emerging, many of courageous women survivors who are channeling their pain to hasten our nation’s healing.
I will tell you mine.
A childhood, bombed
Turmoil awaited me at birth. I experienced the first four years of my life in a Cambodia under siege, a pawn in the Cold War. Under US-President Richard Nixon’s orders, my country was carpeted with over half-a-million tons of bombs. The aim: to root out Vietnamese soldiers taking refuge in a neutral land.
In these early years, I grew up loved by a father who was oftentimes far away from our home in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, commanding his several-thousand-strong military men out in the many battlefields. When she was not visiting her husband on the frontlines my mother shepherded her five young children away from the bombings in the capital city.
I spent the next four years of my life fighting for survival—as much as a toddler of five, six, seven, eight years old could—from the consuming hell of the Khmer Rouge. Immediately after Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge in April 1975, my father “disappeared.” He was violently killed by the black-clad, young peasant boys who the regime had conscripted. This came only days after my mom had cheered these same men with welcoming, exclamatory praise. “Hooray! Peace is at hand,” she had said.
Just three years later, in a prison compound in the heart of the “Eastern Zone,” Khmer Rouge security guards led the prisoners—including my mother, my four brothers, and myself—into the night and executed nearly everyone in nearby fields and bushes. I later learned that nearly 20,000 were executed at this prison compound. That dark night, somehow, inexplicably, my mother managed to untangle herself out of my embrace without waking me. For some reason, they let the children live.
Peace eluded me even after Vietnam invaded and put an end to the Khmer Rouge regime in January 1979. The three dark years, eight dark months, and twenty dark nights of the Khmer Rouge reign of terror took the lives of my father, my mother, my aunt, and her newlywed husband. They took my home, my childhood, my innocence, and 1.7 million Cambodian countrymen. Every Cambodian who found herself with breath woke up from the “killing fields” (the rice paddies spread across Cambodia) in a stupor, dazed by the killing spree that claimed one-fourth of the country’s population.
At 9 years old, I found myself without my mother and father, displaced in a cold, violent, anarchic, incomprehensible world, without shelter or the security of a home. The Khmer Rouge had shredded my heart and the external sociopolitical confusion mirrored my internal chaos. After several months, my relatives came to the conclusion that it was better to risk an escape across minefields, Khmer Rouge soldiers, commonplace plunderers and robbers, and mountainous terrain to Thailand rather than to remain in a Communist, occupied, drought-stricken homeland.
It was November 1979 when my maternal relatives, my four brothers, and I crossed into Thailand and became the first group of refugees to start Khao-I-Dang camp. We stayed only one year before being called to a third country, some to the United States and some to France, whereas others wilted indefinitely in these squalid camps, some until a United Nations-sponsored repatriation in 1993.
We arrived in the United States as broken refugees, beginning life anew at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder. In the US, we experienced the dramatic absence of war. But internally, we were torn apart. The new reality of America did not erase the accumulated trauma and emotional weight of the past; in many instances, they were compounded by adjusting to a new culture, a new language, a new life.
My thoughts—no longer consumed by how to survive—focused on how to live without the angst from within, without the nightmares that terrorized my sleep causing me to act out violently against my grandmother who had the misfortune of sharing a bed with me. I focused on how to mend the fragmented pieces of my heart and spirit, how to purge the demons from within. I didn’t have a road map, and my relatives could not help—they were consumed with the same struggle.
Cambodia Today: The Tribunal
It is safe to say that every Cambodian who lived under the Khmer Rouge encountered similar emotional disquietude and restlessness. This tumult has been absorbed by the newer generation born following the brutal Khmer Rouge years.
We have been living without war for some years now, but we want and need more. We want a complete peace, a peace where there is justice. Just now we are painstakingly, slowly trading our past for our present.
After thirty painful years, we have cobbled together a court of law known informally as the Khmer Rouge Tribunal (also called the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, ECCC) to address the mass crimes of the Khmer Rouge and to usher in an era of peace.
Of course, a court of law anywhere in the world has its limitations. It must narrowly weigh evidence in order to determine guilt, and in this case, this evidence is 30 years old, compromised, lost, and witnesses are too fearful to come forward. The Tribunal is limited by charges of corruption, and the narrow scope of trying only the “most senior Khmer Rouge leaders” and those “most responsible” between April 1975 and January 1979. This narrows it down to only five members of the Khmer Rouge who will stand trial: the infamous director of the genocidal detention center Duch, Kang Kek Iew, and the senior leaders, Nuon Chea, Khieu Samphan, and Mr. and Mrs. Ieng Sary and Ieng Thirith.
Even so, the Tribunal provides for the first time in international law the opportunity for victims to become a ‘civil party.’ This unprecedented opportunity offers Cambodia two concrete, principal benefits: In the short term, it allows for the empowerment that comes from confronting head-on those senior Khmer Rouge leaders victims hold responsible. In the long term, the process provides for a lasting legacy of putting faces and names to the cold figure of 1.7 million.
In addition to the court of law, the Tribunal is also serving as a “court of public opinion.” As such it has become a powerful catalyst to build a culture of dialogue. We are finally discussing long-overdue topics of history, trauma, healing, reconciliation, and forgiveness.
We are imprisoned by our past and the Tribunal offers us a way out to freedom. However, it is difficult to assess what type of legacy will be had from this process that is fraught with politicking and charges of corruption. No matter how we slice society, behind every issue lies the history of the Khmer Rouge. We must deal with this horrific past if we are to win our battle against all the prevailing human rights abuses in contemporary Cambodian society.
Sometimes the challenges feel countless and they overwhelm me. We live in a sea of urgent issues constantly competing for our time—from military land grabbings, to rampant trafficking of women and children, to corruption, to deforestation, to political violence, to domestic abuse… Still, we are not without hope; we see it in the courage of Somaly Mam and the many others who are turning the tide against modern-day slavery; in Dr. Ing Kantha Phavi; in parliamentarians Mu Sochua and Tioulong Saumura working at the political level; to Chou Vineath and Chap Chandina who are using their skills in the NGO sector to expand the voice of the weak and vulnerable and to address issues of court reform. And, today, over half of Cambodian bloggers are young women who are creatively using new modes of communication to connect and to inspire.
Hope lies in the fellowship of being women, in collective suffering, in being attuned to compassion and the work of peace. I have started out saying that my life has been a journey in pursuit of peace. I am glad to be traveling with kindred spirits: men and women who desire peace, the kind that is more than the absence of war, but necessitates the presence of justice. My homeland is a good place to start.
About Theary Seng
An activist and lawyer, Theary Seng was born in Phnom Penh in early 1971. Under the Khmer Rouge, she lived in Svay Rieng province bordering Vietnam, where the killings were most intense and where she spent five months in prison. She has written about her life in the book Daughter of the Killing Fields, and today is the Executive Director of the Center for Social Development, a human rights organization based in Cambodia. Learn more about her life and work at www.thearyseng.com.