Cambodian attorney fighting for justice got start in Grand Rapids

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by Cynthia Price
Legal News

In the 1970s, the name Pol Pot was synonymous with “violent dictatorship.” The global community looked on and deplored the Cambodian leader’s tactics, but attorney Theary Seng has a different perspective: she lived through it.

Her parents, unfortunately, did not. Her father was murdered early on, and the Khmer Rouge soldiers whisked her mother away almost literally out from under her and killed her in a prison camp when Seng was eight years old.

The following morning, guards allowed Seng and her four brothers to leave the camp. When Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1979, ending the regime, Seng was among thousands who escaped through the jungle, entering Thailand, eventually traveling to the United States. Her destination: Grand Rapids.

Seng told her story as part of the well-known annual January Series of lectures at Calvin College.

Thirty years after her first arrival here as a young child, she stepped off the ground at Gerald R. Ford Airport once again to participate in the series, and reunited with some of the people from the church community who sponsored her as a refugee and nurtured her to adulthood.

After high school, she attended Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and received a bachelor’s degree in International Politics. She came back to Michigan to obtain her Juris Doctor from University of Michigan Law School, which she was granted in 2000. She is still a member of the American Bar Association and the New York Bar.

But Seng’s heart was in her homeland, and she returned to Cambodia full-time in 2004, after visiting repeatedly and doing volunteer work since 1995. She founded the organization Center for Justice and Reconciliation, and serves as its board president.

In 2005, her book Daughter of the Killing Fields was published in London. The well-received book is a harrowing account of the human cost of the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia, and after her presentation at the January Series dozens of people wanted Seng to sign their copy.

Barnes and Thornburg sponsored her talk. According to firm partner Michael Snapper, “Barnes and Thornburg has sponsored the January Series program for several years. We think it’s a great service to the Grand Rapids community as well as the college community.” Snapper said that as a long-term sponsor, Barnes and Thornburg is allowed some input over the selection of the speaker sponsored, but there was no direct connection with Seng.

She started out her hour in front of a full house at Calvin College by showing about ten minutes of a video made about the current trial in Cambodia prosecuting Khieu Samphan, the head of state during the Khmer Rouge regime, for crimes against the people. The clip showed Seng confronting Khieu Samphan and comforting other victims who spoke out. It also detailed some of the absurdities of his defense: French attorney Jacques Vergès, the subject of a documentary called Terror’s Advocate, did his best to subvert the proceedings by making requests such as the translation of tens of thousands of pages of documents into French.

After the film clip, petite Theary Seng came to the podium. The audience paid rapt attention.    

Seng has an excellent command of the English language, and her speech was impassioned and deeply-felt, as well as analytical — full of the type of detail that would interest an attorney working through the court system.

The way the tribunal was set up is interesting in and of itself. Rather than try the criminals at the International Criminal Court, the U.N. and the Royal Government of Cambodia set up a special court in Cambodia, which proceeds under Cambodian legal rules. In fact the court is so special that it is called Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, or ECCC. The tribunal was set up specifically to cover “serious violations of Cambodian penal law, international humanitarian law and custom, and violation of international conventions recognized by Cambodia” during the Khmer Rouge reign.

The tribunal does utilize both U.N. and Cambodian judges and key personnel equally. The court decided to try only two categories of members of the regime: first, senior Khmer Rouge leaders; second, those most responsible for atrocities and illegalities at that time. Khieu Samphan’s trial is the second to take place.

Seng was the first ECCC-recognized civil party to testify in the first of the tribunal’s hearings, which she referred to as Case 001, against the most senior surviving leader, Nuon Chea.

Seng very stridently made the point that she finds the structure and many of the proceedings to be flawed. “There are many, many bloody hands, but the court can only provide symbolic justice.” However, she is very hopeful about the proceedings’ potential for making change in the court of public opinion. “It’s a way that we can repudiate the Khmer Rouge publicly, show our disgust,” she said.

She found the existence of the film shown at the outset, and its wide distribution, an example of how the tribunal can make a difference, saying that such publicity can serve “poetic justice.”

And Seng feels passionately that the nation is in need of cleansing, primarily as a way of healing the damage caused to generations who grew up with no parents or with destroyed communities in a country where one third of the population was murdered. She feels it is important that the country engage in dialogue which includes the victims, and wants to see an end to the practice of sweeping that period under the carpet.

She said she feels as if most people of that generation show signs of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and are dishonored by pretending it never happened.

At one point her staff accused her of “thinking that all Cambodians were mentally ill,” but as more and more of those who lived through the period camd forward, the staff acquired some of Seng’s urgency in seeking justice.

Seng’s strategy is to push for the victims of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge to be admitted as parties to the tribunal proceedings. She vows to continue her struggle to have the victims’ voices heard until national reconciliation is a reality.

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