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MUJESTIC
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i n t e r v i e w   b y  :   p r a C h   L y
- Theary C. Seng in your own words can you give the reader a brief biography of yourself.

I am an American-Cambodian woman who has been greatly blessed with an amazing family (nuclear, extended, adopted and otherwise), great friends (seasonal and lifelong), inspirational figures and personalities (whom I’ve met in person or from the pages of great literature), exceptional experiences (past, present) and abounding opportunities challenging, enfolding, uplifting me. 

I am a fellow traveler on life’s fleeting sojourn—having traversed Phnom Penh in the early 1970s; the Khmer Rouge killing fields of the late 1970s; the Thai refugee camps, the Michigan winters, and teenage years in southern California of the 1980s, Georgetown undergraduate and Michigan Law as well as post-conflict Cambodia of the 1990s; a full circle by coming back home to a fragile land in the early 2000s—fraught with the ghosts of the past, abuses of the present and hope for the future.

I am a sister, an aunt and at one time a daughter; not yet a wife and a mother; no longer a prisoner and a refugee.  In sum, I am a free human being grateful to be alive and disturbingly, restlessly challenged in this at once despicable, ethereal, ephemeral world of devastating cruelty and sublime beauty.

- You are the founder and board president of the Cambodian Center for Justice & Reconciliation, and also the founding director of CIVICUS: Center for Cambodian Civic Education. What motivated you to create and or join these two organization ?

The Center for Justice & Reconciliation and CIVICUS came into being out of necessity—to continue the work of the Center for Social Development after I was removed as CSD’s director via a politically-motivated injunctive order and CSD’s subsequent non-functioning.  CSD had been effective in engaging Cambodians from all walks of life and from all over the country in dialogue on topics of human rights, democracy, peace, justice, reconciliation and healing in light of Cambodian Constitution, international treaties and declarations, and most recently the Khmer Rouge Tribunal. 

The Center for Justice & Reconciliation continues this justice and reconciliation work in a more fine-tuned, focused manner, managed by an incredibly able team of experienced practitioners of former CSD staff and a Cambodian-American lawyer from California, who happens to be my youngest brother, Daravuth. 

CIVICUS, yet in early stages of operation, focuses on transforming Cambodian survivors into engaged, informed citizens with a particular focus on what it means to carry out civic duties and responsibilities in the public realm in a still fragile democracy.   
-As I recall a couple years back in srok Khmer, you were on the back of a moped and someone snatch your purse. You fell off the injuring yourself. The thief took off with your belongings, ID, travel documents, and passport. Have you recovered from that incident? And do you think it was random or you think that was intentional?

Yes, I remember the robbery vividly, as I still bear the scars on my right shoulder blade even though the violence occurred five years ago.  (I remember a friend had suggested that I should remove the palm-size scar with cosmetic surgery, an advice I did not heed.  I’d like to view it as my man-made beauty mark, and I’d like to think beauty can be transformed from horror.) 

It was a random crime, nothing more invidious than that.  It was, however, certainly very audacious as the crime took place in broad daylight, in mid-afternoon in front of the Royal Palace and the Ministry of Justice before onlookers of police and tourists.  I was very fortunate in not hitting my head when I fell off the moto-dup (moped taxi) and that there was no immediate on-coming traffic.  Immediately, I jumped back on the moto-dup to finish my errands before heading to a medical clinic for cleaning up as it is important to quash immediately any possibility of phobia arising.
- Our deep condolence to both your parents. At that time you were at age where you could remember. Now, do you know who was in charge and if you would have caught him or her or them, what would be justice to you?

Thank you for your condolences and kind sentiments. 

I hold the senior Khmer Rouge leaders (currently detained by the Khmer Rouge Tribunal) personally, individually responsible for the deaths of my parents.  It is true they did not physically kill my father or my mother with their own hands.  However, they gave the orders and created the conditions for death to be the norm and killing to be as easy as breathing. 

I do not know for certain the fate of the individuals who were physically responsible for the actual murder of my parents.  My father “disappeared” after the “Khmer Rouge” rounded him and other men into the convoy trucks in 1975.  I have heard that the prison chief who gave the order to have the prisoners, including my mother, killed had passed away a while back.

photo taken : unknown /  date : unknown
The prosecution of these individuals offers a strand of legal justice to me.  Other forms of justice have taken place in my soul, one being the process of learning to forgive, an act independent of a prosecution.
- You fled to the border of Cambodia and Thailand. There are haunting stories about beatings, rape, and even murder there, did you witness any of these offense while you was there?

I remember hearing stories of such atrocities and abuses in the refugee camps, but as a child of nine years old, I did not witness any of these crimes myself that I recall.  However, my older relatives did encounter these violations and abuses as they were more attuned and more mobile to expose them to these matters.
-What was the first book about and when was it published?

My first book, Daughter of the Killing Fields: Asrei’s Story, is a compilation of experiences of my nuclear and extended family members during the Khmer Rouge years, overlay with my personal reflections and remembrances.  The genre is memoir, but it is more correctly a family biography.  This memoir or family history was first published in London in September 2005.  To this day, the memoir is not sold in Canada and the United States, a restriction I imposed on the London publishing house; I wanted to wait for a New York publishing house for the North American markets, a luxury of time and choice I did not have as a first time author.  In the intervening years since, the memoir was effectively forgotten by me in terms of North American rights, translation rights etc; it is only now that I am afforded the energy and time to think again about getting this story out to the larger American public.
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-Is the book you are currently writing a follow up to your first book or is it a whole different story?

My second writing is altogether a different book – a reflection piece on the topics of peace, justice, reconciliation, how they interrelate with each other in the healing process.  My conversations with Cambodians all over the country of the last four years will help to flesh out these concepts.

- $50 million to help Cambodia developments or $50 million for the KR war trial?


The Khmer Rouge Tribunal (KRT) is spending an average of US$40-50 million per year to try the senior Khmer Rouge leaders, which is an astronomical amount not comprehensible to many of us. How much more the incomprehension to a Cambodian teacher earning US$50 a month?! Or a farmer barely eking out a living?! Or the 35% of 14 million Cambodians living on less than 50 U.S. cents a day, where the poverty line is US$2 a day and where gasoline and electricity cost more in Cambodia than the United States?! (US$4.20 per gallon to be exact!)

This said, I believe the costs of the KRT are not unreasonable even if not easily comprehensible.  Comparatively speaking, the KRT is a major bargain in light of other mixed and international tribunals, not that this knowledge is any comfort to any of us. 

By way of attempting a response, let me say this:  The either/or of ‘development’ or this Khmer Rouge Tribunal is a false choice, as I’d like to believe that this KRT furthers ‘development’.  However we slice the Cambodian society right now, there is the Khmer Rouge. 

For example, we cannot understand and begin to address the high rate of domestic violence if we do not understand or begin to address the larger violation, i.e., the mass crimes of the Khmer Rouge; we cannot understand or begin to address the current culture of impunity, if we do not address the impunity of the mass KR crimes. 

We cannot develop if we do not have justice; we do not have justice, if we do not end impunity (or at least chip away at it); we cannot end impunity, if we allow mass crimes to go unpunished. 

I understand this is simplistic and the issues are complex, but hopefully, you can the idea.  We need to collectively repudiate the mass crimes in order to begin to restore moral and social order, a necessary first step of development.

-As the “ daughter of the killing fields” and losing both your parents to the Genocide, what are your thoughts on the Khmer Rouge Trial ?


My opening remarks I just gave at the Rutgers School of Law symposium on the Extraordinary Chambers (the formal name for the Khmer Rouge Tribunal) best capture my thoughts, attached:

- What make you chose to go to law school, I mean why law, labor and human rights? Why not open a business and just settle down?

At an earlier age, there were two things I wanted in life: to obtain a law degree and to live again in Cambodia.  I went to law school to learn how to express myself more effectively, to untangle my emotional knots and to make sense of my turbulent inner life in this transient world. 

I entered the human rights field as a natural progression of and response to who I am as a survivor of the Khmer Rouge genocide, a Christian bestowed with great opportunities and blessings, and a human being who desires more than just success but significance. 
-You made history when you testified as the first ECCC-recognized civil party against the pre-trial detention hearing of the most senior, surviving Khmer Rouge leader, Brother No. 2 Nuon Chea on 7 Feb. 2008. How was that moment like for you?


The moment was surreal and full of dissonance—to have this man, often caricatured as evil incarnate, a larger-than-life monster of international renown; this man who played God in determining who could live, who would die and chose the method of their deaths, this man now reduced by age to an old, pathetic, frail, ailing frame now standing before justice, before the Cambodian public, before the international public—before me, not as a helpless child, but an empowered woman with moral authority over him—going down in the annals of history as a mass murderer, a destroyer of culture and his own people, vilified and publicly humiliated—now being answerable to me, to me(!), as I took the proceeding personally and his crimes personally—it was breath-taking and humbling, and vindication!

http://www.krtrial.info/imagegallery/images/Seng-Theary.jpg

- What are your thought on Hun Sen and his CPP who is currently in control of Cambodia?

I believe Mr. Hun Sen has overstayed his stay in power by a couple of decades and his CPP lacking vision and the wherewithal to be leaders in the 21st century Cambodia. 

I am sympathetic with Mr. Hun Sen and the CPP leadership to the extent that they started out as well-meaning individuals who were unfortunately transformed for the worst by the speed and complexity of change since the end of the Cold War where politics are no longer neatly divided by the simple categorization of East vs. West, Communism vs. Capitalism, Authoritarian vs. Freedom.  As you may notice, the Communists at the first opportunity have become the worst and most greedy Capitalists more than the capitalists themselves could ever be, shedding any superficial ideology of social equality they may have held.

I believe Mr. Hun Sen is a very shrewd strategist for his own survival; in this regard, one may consider him a very good politician.  However, I’d like to think the criteria for being a “good” politician, in this case the prime minister, especially in the 21st century, to go beyond personal survival to include the expansion of the public good for the welfare of the citizens.  Consequently, I do not see Mr. Hun Sen as a good politician nor an effective statesman of magnanimity and capability to have as his focus the welfare of Cambodians or the development of Cambodia, but rather a third rate reactionary who is out of his depth in his ability to respond to the swirling geopolitics of this modern time.  For example, he and the CPP have been unable to untangle themselves from the invidious influence of Vietnam, their patron; they have been unwittingly roped into personal, petty politics with Thailand with tremendous, serious geopolitical consequences for Cambodia.  I view Mr. Hun Sen and the CPP lacking ideology, creativity, vision and wherewithal to handle the fast-paced confluences of globalization and information communication technology in this knowledge-based, modern world.  In one respect, they remind me of the Khmer Rouge in their inability to understand and respond to the geopolitics of their time except by reactionary inclination toward repression and violence.


- Here in America the President has a 4 year term and can be up for election and can ONLY be elected twice. So the maximum is 8 years, 2 terms. Hun Sen have been in power for 3 decade! Do you think Cambodia should adapt American policy in terms of election or is it fine the way it is?


Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely.  Democracy necessitates choice and fresh, competing ideas.  Three decades of stale, regressive leadership cannot be desirable.  Moreover, what does the country have to show for the billions and billions of foreign assistance which have been pouring into Cambodia over the last 2 decades except for a few roads and a few shiny buildings?  In addition to the financial costs, take a look at the social costs to Cambodians and Cambodia—a Grand Canyon-size chasm of inequity, a culture of prostitution and sex-trafficking, a further embedded mentality of dependency and cynicism, entrenched corruption and impunity, mass evictions of the poor and landless, a land greatly stripped of its environmental beauty and safeguards with little forest cover… Need I say more?

It is never a good idea to transplant American democracy to any place, particularly Cambodia.  However, there exist universal principles which resonate with all human beings which are imports of democracy: freedom of expression, freedom of belief, freedom from want, freedom from fear.  Election is only one manifestation of a democracy.


-What is your thought on the Preah Vihear temple tension?

We have the law on our side; we should have immediately taken the matter to regional and international bodies, such as ASEAN and the United Nations rather than engage in this military and diplomatic stand-off which we are substantially weaker than Thailand on both fronts.  We should have immediately lobbied the international community, particularly the signatories of the Paris Agreements which brought about UNTAC who have an obligation to act and come to Cambodia’s territorial defense.


- What can we do to help to stop human trafficking and child prostitution not just in Cambodia but around the world?

Everyone of us has a responsibility toward each other and toward the upholding of human dignity.  Human trafficking and prostitution undermine human dignity.  In this light, a fundamental first step is awareness of the problems and a personal affirmation and restoration of these basic values of human dignity.  More practically, we can provide support to organizations known to effectively work in these areas, like World Vision which has done so much to combat human trafficking around the world, in particular in Cambodia.


- What do you think is the 3 biggest issues facing Cambodia right now? And what do you want change in the 10 years?



1.    A mentality of inferiority, of dependency, of victim hood, of hand-outs – which says we cannot, should not expect, we do not deserve anything better than the “lesser than evil” choices in life.  The mentality to be gratified and satisfied with crumbs for crumbs are better than nothing, better than starvation under the Khmer Rouge.

2.    Materialism, false modesty; feigned personality (hypocrisy), the trading of high culture for low culture, exchanging authenticity for the counterfeit.  For example, we give lip service to the grandeur of Khmer ballet but treat the dancers like beggars rather than treasured professionals; we pay lip service to the grandeur of the Angkor Wat but do nothing to protect is longevity and sacredness.  In contrast, we love everything foreign that is a counterfeit of Khmer high culture.

3.    Impunity; corruption of the mind, of the soul in addition to pervasive predatory corruption in everyday life, at school, in court, in the ministries etc.



- I was there with you for the one year anniversary morning of the assassination of the late union leader CHEA VICHEA. Now there is an awarding winning documentary out call “Who killed Chea Vichea ?” who do you think is behind the killing and why?


All evidence point to the powers that be.


- Now I have receive death threats before and I am sure I will get plenty more for my music and voicing my opinion. I stand behind the freedom of expression statement. I will not stop even though I know that the threat is real. My question to you is have you receive any? and how do you feel about it?


The most overt threat and intimidation occurred when we hosted Mia Farrow and the Dream for Darfur team here in Cambodia.  Besides that, I don’t recall other serious ones which have stayed in my mind.  There is of course the phone tapping, particularly when I am being interviewed by Radio Free Asia or Voice of America.
Any act of intimidation, any threat, any form of violence is fundamentally COWARDICE.  And I refuse to give credence or energy to cowards, little boys in men’s clothing pretending to exercise power.  I believe in the strength and justice of moral power over physical, brute power.  As Martin Luther King, Jr. articulated, the long arc of history bends toward justice and I want to take part in the bending; fear paralyzes and inhibits.  So it is best to focus on the bending “toward justice” and not focus on the cowardice of others.


- Beside the book, what is your current project?


I am a bit overwhelmed with projects relating to my personal and professional role at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal; fundraising for Center for Justice & Reconciliation as well as CIVICUS; my involvement in regional bodies such as the Affiliated Network for Social Accountability foundation based in Manila, the Human Rights Resource Center for ASEAN based in Jakarta; personal writings for publications as well as the books and their related research, translation rights, publicity etc.  And of course, I have neglected my personal life which is a consuming and endless “project”  : ) which requires more tending to…  
- Happy Khmer New Year ! what are your plans for this new year ?

Suorsdei chnam thmei to you !  No specific plans besides joining some of the offerings in Phnom Penh with family and friends…


- the last time I had lunch with you we ordered the Phnom Penh noodles. I ordered Phnom Penh noodle dry with soup on the side, now what did you order?


Wow, that’s one great memory!  I probably ordered the same thing as you for I really like my noodles separated from the soup (minus the MSG !).  I’m a bit older than you, so my memory is failing and not as sharp as yours…


- What do you do on your spare time?


I love to read and I have been reading more recently… over a glass of good French wine.  I like the arts, hence going to the theatre and dance performances… I love Khmer culture but we do need to open up the artistic offerings to include more cosmopolitan performances, which are lacking and which I miss when living here in Cambodia.


- what type of music do you listen to ?


I love traditional Cambodian music as well as music of the 1960s.  I cannot wait to see the film being produced and directed by a good friend, John Pirozzi, on Cambodian music of this era which should be out soon, Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten.  I love jazz and anything that I can understand…I like your music ( praCh ) a lot because I can understand it; however, besides your music, many times my ears are sensitive to cacophonous and gratuitous coarse rap lyrics devoid of a social message.  Your question reminds me that I need to invest in a better stereo system …


- 7 words to best describe yourself.


Tempestuous.   Impatient.  Wannabe artist.  Passionate.  Fair.  Visionary.


- 7 things you would put in your time capsule?


Photos of my mother, my father, my aunt Peat and her husband Long, my grandmother Yi Hao, and 2 group photos of my nieces and nephews.  With the following caption to accompany these photos:  In loving memory; we will not let you die in vain; for the future generation, PEACE.


- Any last words ?


Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. -- ''The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.''

“Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”
Robert F. Kennedy
Capetown, June 6th 1966
On 7 June 2007, German rock legend Herbert Groenenmeyer, U2's Bono, Bob Geldof and civil society umbrella organization Global Call to Action against Poverty organized the P-8 Rock Concert in Rostock, Germany to highlight the plight of the world's poor, to coincide with the G-8 Summit where the leaders of the world richest countries were meeting in nearby, seaside Heiligendamm. Theary represented Cambodia, one of the "Poor 8" countries invited, along with Bangladesh, represented by Nobel laureate Mohammad Yunus. Following is Theary's speech to an electric crowd of 80,000 and several million more TV viewers.

Hallo Rostock!

My name is Theary Seng and I run the Center for Social Development in Cambodia. The Center for Social Development is a Cambodian human rights NGO which monitors 7 courts (including the Khmer Rouge Tribunal), advocates for good governance and accountability (many times with Transparency International) and conducts grassroots dialogue with villagers all over Cambodia on Justice & Reconciliation. One of our main donors is Deutscher Entwicklungsdienst.

I stand united with you today to resoundingly proclaim: Poverty is not fate. Poverty is not destiny. Poverty is man-made; it results from the greed and arrogance of power, poor governance and ill-conceived policies. Today, we join voices against the scourge of poverty and to urge the G-8 leaders to be more mindful of Cambodians, and the less fortunate of this world.

Yes, Cambodia is back -but not everyone. In Cambodia, 35 percent live on less than 50 US cents a day.

Lack of education causes poverty

Enrollment is up, but we have one in two Cambodian child not completing primary school. The girls are most vulnerable to dropping out first because of the lack of toilets -10 Million out of 14 Million Cambodians do not have access to toilets - or the girls are needed at home to care for sick family or they are trafficked and sold into prostitution or they have to work to supplement the family income. In Cambodia, education is supposed to be free, but students must often supplement teachers' meager salary of $30 a month.

War causes poverty

Poverty causes war. We, in Cambodia, had to start literally from the Year Zero, when almost 2 million Cambodians died as a result of the Khmer Rouge, including my parents - my dad immediately when the Khmer Rouge took power in 1975, and my mom later when we were in prison and I was 7 years old.

Corruption causes poverty

In Cambodia, the Anti-Corruption Law has been in draft form since 1995; 12 years later, still no political will, still no law. Now we struck oil, and fear the Resource Curse. If big businesses control more and more of the world's resources, they must bear social responsibility. Let them start with transparency of information of what they pay to government, and let us join the Publish What You Pay movement to pressure them to do so.

Environmental destruction causes poverty

At least 30% of Cambodia's dense, tropical forests have been illegally depleted by the rich and powerful. Last Sunday, Global Witness - which the government has banned from the country for its past reports - released via the internet another scathing report. On my way to join you here, the Cambodian government again threatens confiscation.

Landlessness causes poverty

The Cambodian poor face illegal evictions, or they are forced to sell their land cheaply to pay for health care and life's unexpected crises.

The G-8 leaders believe they can judge our future. In Cambodia, we are currently trying to judge our past for our future. But at least, the G-8 are 8 individuals who control and possess power; in Cambodia, there's only one.

So, today, let us be reminded: Poverty is not destiny. Poverty many times is man-made. Poverty is the worst form of violence. Hence, let us do everything in our power to fight against this worst form of violence. Amidst the poverty, there's also much beauty in Cambodia; come visit us. We still need your help.

And today onward, ich bin eine Rostockerin! Danke schön

Theary C. Seng
( www.mujestic.com/theary_c_seng ) copyrighted 04/09/10
Dear praCh,
WOW, VERY POWERFUL!! You're incredible!! The album is nothing less than social revolution !! I am deeply impress with the depth of lyrics and your detailed following of social issues and Cambodian politics. Even though you're physically faraway, your soul and spirit are here; I feel it in your lyrics and the songs' beat and energy. I love your creative mixture of old and new; Khmer and English - a tribute and recognition of what had gone on before and paying special tribute to that and then communicating that to this generation... You have a real gift and I admire your passion to use this gift to address substantive issues, in addition to just pure entertaining.
I am now coming to the end of the album, having listened to all of them in one sitting...

THANK YOU SO MUCH for allowing me to hear this, a very special privilege I take to heart.

MORE POWER TO YOU, my friend!!

Peace,
Theary
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