Painting by Chath pierSath

Notes from the editor:  Chath pierSath’s life has interfaced with the author and activist Theary Seng who was arrested in Cambodia for treason in 2021. These are his thoughts about his homeland and this individual. We have no reason to disavow his right to express his observations, despite the awareness that the Cambodia government will not look pleasantly upon his thoughts. – Jinx Davis

I have been following Theary Seng’s trial for inciting public protest against the current Hun Sen’s one-party rule regime.

For the last 48 years, Hun Sen had fought his way to secure his own power as prime minister of Cambodia. In the eyes of certain Westerners, he’s the strongman needed to keep the peace, just as they tolerate tyrants elsewhere. In order for peace to exist, an iron fist must be in place to hamper any opposition or dissidents from democratizing the country, although they helped put democracy in place for Cambodia since 1993 after the first national democratic election.

History has shown that democratic countries, like the US, have only paid lip service to this notion of democracy and human rights, while their own practice is falling apart at home. 

The existence of tyranny is best understood by those who directly experience the assaults. Lately, there have been illegal evictions of people from their homes and even land. The entire country is for sale. The Chinese are moving in. The tropical forest has been logged from 70% forest-covered to a mere 20% at the present day. Land titles are often hard to get and it’s very costly for the marginalized and poor. Lakes and rivers are sold and filled with sand to expand Phnom Penh with Chinese money. The CPP (Cambodian People Party) has become synonymous with the CPP (Chinese People Party).

The Chinese People Party had weaponized the Khmer Rouge into power after the US had its filth bombing the region into smithereens. Pol Pot used the exact red book of Mao Tse Tung to cull out the intellectuals and brainwash the younger generation into communist killing machines. They were starved and forced into killing their own people in the process.

Cambodia is especially strategic for China. From there, it can control the regional economy and steer their politics into a one-man takes-all, where the rest serve him as sycophants and cronies. The cronies would then benefit in the development schemes of social and political progress – from being an impoverished nation, like China once was, to a prosperous one, full of lux and ritz.  The majority poor is being abused and assaulted at will.

The Western powers only pay lip service to democracy and human rights, but the reality on the ground is much different and it’s getting worse; not better.

Like Theary, I was a witness, since we were both children during the Khmer Rouge regime, and we became Americans, and then we returned to Cambodia, without our education to help rebuild the country in 1994, right after the democratic election.

We were both volunteers of the Cambodian-American Development Organization (CANDO). She was assigned to a human rights organization and I was to another of the three that existed then. I worked for Human Rights Vigilance of Cambodia, and Theary, if I recall correctly, worked for LICADHO or The Center for Human Rights. She had a law degree and I didn’t. I only knew how to write grants and got international funding for Vigilance. One grant was from the American National Endowment for Democracy.


Theary came as part of the third wave of Cambodian-American volunteers. We met and hung out now and then, but we never deeply shared what we had witnessed or experienced during our brief childhood. We would sit eating hard-boiled eggs at a street stand feeding beggars and victims of land mines with riels to a dollar were easy paper to give away.

Following the completion of our individual volunteer terms, I returned to the US and Theary stayed on to start her own organization. She even worked for a local law firm in Phnom Penh.

It was after my seasonal return, in and out of Cambodia, that I started to reconnect with Theary as a friend. We would go to the Elephant Bar at Le Royal hotel for an expensive drink. One time, she alluded to a resolution of what she was going to do from then on in her life. I didn’t think much of it, but over the years, she was often in the news, and I started to follow her blog.

I was shocked that a man was trying to arrest her publicly on the street full of reporters, violating her physical space. She screamed and shouted at the man, calling him a coward, crying.

 I’ve learned that the government has accused her of inciting public disorder and protesting against the blatant violation of human rights, I think partly against her staunch support of Sam Rainsy and the National Rescue Party, which has been dissolved by Hun Sen and his party.

I started to get worried because anyone who had ever spoken out in opposition to the current regime was gunned down and killed. That included the union leader, Chea Vichea, first in line, blood everywhere on asphalt, on the sidewalk of Wat Lanka, where I regularly purchased the Phnom Penh Post and the Cambodia Daily. Then, there was the environmental activist Wutty. Tens of women were arrested and jailed for protecting against illegal eviction and for the destruction of their home, in which they had lived since 1979. Buildings were burned to chase residents from the property they rightfully owned. If there was compensation, usually it was never enough to purchase a single square meter of land. Then, there was Kem Ly, whose death sent a shockwave to the core of the Khmer soul. Dead, full of blood at a coffee shop in daylight. His funeral procession was the biggest turnout ever. The entire country was mourning the intellectual, the father figure and the teacher, the wisdom giver, and the thought-provoking speaker of truth.

I started to worry about Theary when she joined a throng of other women jailed and falsely accused of a crime that is actually guaranteed to them by the Constitution. I thought of the Khmer Rouge, and how their truth sent all these people to death. There was no trial, no questions asked. Nothing. Kill him. Kill her. That was all they pointed to this and that person. Hacked and chopped. Beaten and hung without a flinch in the eyes.

This is my fear that Theary would be jailed in a cell with little food and clean water. Where would she bathe? Who will visit her? Do they even allow visitors? Will she be able to write letters or use the internet? Will she be able to call a loved one? Will she get a fair trial, since most people didn’t? All these questions sieved into my mind, feeling cold and afraid. What if they shoot her like the others? Who would care? What is it all about? Is it worth the fight? There hasn’t been any form of justice here. There hasn’t been meaningful dialogue or purpose. There hasn’t been a kind of unity or hopeful national vision of Cambodia as far as I know. There had always been conflicts and violence for as long as I can remember. What is Theary thinking?

While Sam Rainsy and his oppositional crew ran and hid in safety, Theary remained all by herself, trusting in Jesus and the almighty Christian God her adopted American family had sewn into her head.  She’s alone in that house in Kien Svay, praying to this God to give her a clear vision into resolves and justice, a country with laws and order, a democratic government she had dreamed of while studying laws in the US, going to church with this spirit of rebellion like Jesus was against the Romans.


I stood with her, and I could picture her, acting out in this theatrical, tragic, and comic play, where she mocks the clowns of justice with her Apsara shaved head and customs. She wears male clothes to poke fun of their claims as Khmer nationals, Khmer culture, and traditions, telling people how to be, how to dress, how to speak, what to say. They are molding an entire generation of sycophants that is fearful of this one man, with money and power. They have disregarded the collective needs for safety and fairness, because, like certain westerners who benefitted from this regime said, the strongman is the only man who can keep the peace.


Then, I feel proud of her, how she stood there, before this so-called judge. A judge who appears to lack intelligence,  based on the type of questions he asks her and the answers to the truth he tries to evade and avoid.

There, she stood alone, with her American-Khmer accent speaking Khmer as she had never left the country.  But the judge said that maybe she didn’t understand her crime because she couldn’t speak Khmer well enough; yet, all the words she used came out of the dictionary of Chuon Nath.

The judge was the one who couldn’t speak Khmer, and if he knew anything about laws, or if he had any vision at all about the mere notion of justice or fairness, then he wouldn’t put his political party first and his people second, his own wellbeing and people before the laws in which he is to enforce.


I couldn’t help but think of Theary’s brilliant device of a political theater, in which she is the protagonist, against the almighty throne of the past, the barbarism of ignorance and domination, the Khmer Rouge styled of government, tyrannical and autocracy, with their faces all red, full of anger and feeling of threats, like their manhood and power are being mocked and attacked.


Arrest her, they would say, when they couldn’t argue against the truth and their own fallacies. When they’re stuck, they use their only power of aggression and get rid of any opposition to their flaws. They don’t want to look stupid when they are facing those who are wise and educated in the things they hide and fear. True freedom is a threat to them so they want to put people like her away, but history had shown repeatedly that this form of tyranny won’t last, and people like Theary will be remembered likely as the virgin mother of justice. She takes comfort in her belief, that whatever the end result may be, she will float out into the arms of her God.


And that is the odyssey of life. And that is her theater, her act of defiance against Goliath as the David with only a sling, one cannon to aim at her target. That is her education and enduring courage and faith in the process and the act of rebellion to inspire justice and truth in a society that constructed itself on a fragile foundation.

A foundation of divine rule, colonial power, and revolutionary feat.  Karl Marx, Engel, and Mao. A foundation that resulted in a Hitler, a Mussolini, and a Pot Pot.

Now, a Hun Sen, with one blinded eye. He is the cyclops in a Greek tragedy like the flesh-eating ogre told in the story of the Khmer Empire.


Theary will win.

Theary Seng’s website

Theary Seng’s Facebook

Daughter of the Killing Fields by Theary Seng