Theary Seng, a Cambodian lawyer and human rights activist, is facing treason charges in a trial scheduled for Nov. 26 for speaking critically against the Cambodian government and supporting democratic reform. The charges are part of a larger crackdown on activists and journalists viewed as opponents of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Seng is a refugee who, after earning her law degree at the University of Michigan, chose to return to Cambodia in 2004 to support the development of her country’s democracy. She is the founder of the Cambodian Center for Justice and Reconciliation and the founding director of CIVICUS: Center for Cambodian Civic Education. For more than 10 years, her organizations have worked to educate Cambodians in democratic principles and the civics of Cambodia’s political system.
The criminal charges are the most recent sign that democratic institutions in Cambodia are deteriorating rapidly. Hun Sen has been prime minister for more than 35 years and has revealed a willingness to keep his seat by any means necessary. Numerous journalists have been imprisoned since a contested election in 2017 under the country’s criminal “incitement” law, which allows the state to fine and imprison its detractors.
The charges against Seng claim she and other opponents of Hun Sen’s ruling party took part in anti-government activities over the course of the last three years, amounting to conspiracy to commit treason and incitement to commit a felony. In total, 56 individuals were issued summonses to stand trial this month for conspiracy and treason charges.
Members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives penned an open letter this month to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urging him to send a “strong message” in diplomatic discussions over “the alarming deterioration in human rights protection and democratic rule in Cambodia.” They condemned Hun Sen and his party’s crackdown on free speech, association, and assembly, and further called on Pompeo to work with the Treasury Department to “impose targeted sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act or other appropriate measures against the senior leadership of the CPP.” The U.S. Trade Representative also should review Cambodia’s tariff privileges, the lawmakers said.
‘Tipping Point’ Coinciding With Chinese Influence
The charges against Seng and the other opponents of the Hun Sen government may mark the tipping point in Cambodia’s relationship with the West, particularly given that this disturbing turn has developed with the rise of China’s influence in Cambodia.
The history of U.S.-Cambodia relations is best described as turbulent. In the late 1960s, U.S. bombing campaigns coinciding with the Vietnam War dropped more payload on Cambodia than all the Allies’ bombs dropped in World War II combined. The campaigns, which the Nixon administration kept secret from the American public and Congress, decimated Cambodia just years after it first gained independence.
Many, including Seng, have cited the bombings as the root cause of the Khmer Rouge’s ascent to power in 1975. An estimated 1.5 million to 2 million Cambodians died from famine and mass killings from 1975 to 1979, when the Khmer Rouge reign ended. Since then, the U.S. has contributed to the country’s development through direct aid and foreign investment, and offered many Cambodians refugee status.
For decades, the United States and the European Union have made investment and aid to Cambodia dependent on human rights protections and pro-democratic reforms. But as China’s economic, political, and military influence has grown, Cambodia’s willingness to adopt measures respecting human rights, transparency, and the rule of law has withered.
In 2009, Cambodia rebuffed U.S. pressure and bowed to China’s demands to expel a group of 20 Uighur Muslims seeking refugee status. Then, after the 2013 national election, the United States and the EU called for investigations into the CPP’s claim to victory citing allegations of voting irregularities. Beijing, meanwhile, quickly offered its congratulations to Hun Sen and his ruling party.
The 2018 national election marked a low point in U.S.-Cambodia diplomatic relations, with Phnom Penh alleging the United States and the EU were supporting a “color revolution” to overthrow its government. Since then, China has invested billions in projects in the country, with no human rights-related strings attached.
Members of the U.S. Congress are rightfully concerned about the worsening situation of democracy in Cambodia. In August 2017, the Cambodian government ordered the closure of the office of the National Democratic Institute, an American organization funded by the U.S. government to support democratic development worldwide that had been working in the country for a quarter century. Later in 2017, opposition leader Kem Sokha was jailed for treason for allegedly working with the United States to harm the country. The U.S. government-funded but independent Radio Free Asia ended its in-country operations, and two of its journalists were arrested.
The Cambodian government’s descent into despotism continued in 2020, as noted in a Nov. 16 statement from the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Mary Lawlor. She described a cycle of authorities arresting activists for speaking out against the arrests of other activists, amounting to “a concerted attempt to erode civic space and stifle the work of human rights defenders.”
Orphaned and Imprisoned Under the Khmer Rouge
Born in Cambodia, Seng was a child when the Khmer Rouge took power in 1975. Many of her immediate family members died in the ensuing genocidal purge. Like countless other Cambodian children, she was orphaned and imprisoned. She survived and moved to the United States in 1979. She went on to graduate from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and the University of Michigan Law School.
She was the first survivor accepted as a civil party to the Khmer Rouge tribunals, also known as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), in which she testified in 2008. Later, in 2011, Seng withdrew her support and publicly rebuked the tribunal for bowing to political pressure. A press release issued at the time by an organization she founded stated the tribunal had become
“a political farce, an irreversible sham of extraordinary perversion in denying justice to victims, exploiting their suffering, soiling the memories of their loved ones and embedding cynicism in an already fragile population living in paranoia, mistrust and distrust.”
This month’s summons orders Seng to appear in Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Nov. 26 to stand trial. Jared Genser, a well-known international human rights lawyer and managing director of the law firm Perseus Strategies LLC — and Seng’s law school classmate — agreed to represent her. But the Washington Post reported it is unlikely he will be permitted to enter the country, either due to Covid-19 restrictions or because he may be banned from entry.
Seng has stated she will appear at her trial and will represent herself if necessary. She described the charges as “trumped-up” by the Hun Sen government as an attempt to intimidate and silence her. “They would be laughable if not for the prison term that could, and most likely would, see me languishing inside Cambodia’s notorious prisons for decades.”
Given the CPP’s control over the Cambodian judiciary, Genser does not expect Seng will receive a fair trial. In a Nov. 23 email to Seng’s supporters, Genser wrote, “She has no ability to prepare for her trial and she could be tried, sentenced, convicted, and taken to jail within minutes of arriving in court.”
Writing recently in a message shared on her Facebook page, Seng thanked those who have supported her and urged them to remain committed, stating, “Truth is its own power.”