A Discussion with Theary Seng, Founder, Cambodian Center for Justice and Reconciliation and CIVICUS: Center for Cambodian Civic Education

With: Theary Seng

September 17, 2010

Background: Theary Seng, founder of the Cambodian Center for Justice and Reconciliation and an alumna of Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service, discusses her faith and her current work in reconciliation and civic education in Cambodia. Emphasizing the need for more creativity in disseminating the documentation and testimony from the Khmer Rouge Tribunal in ways that foster civic conversation, she describes her mission as transforming Cambodians from ‘subjects' and ‘survivors' into citizens. Over the course of the interview she also highlights how her Christian faith relates to her understanding of justice and equality in Cambodia and discusses the relationship and differences between peacebuilding and development. This conversation between Theary Seng, Ethan Carroll, and Nathaniel Adams took place at Ms. Seng's home in Phnom Penh on September 17, 2010.

What inspired you to come back to Cambodia and why was this an important move in your life?

I guess it’s a journey. It’s a journey for every person really; my history is just a little more dramatic and traumatic, so it informs the decision to be back here. I wouldn’t be anywhere else; it was either stay in the States or come back to a place where there was a tug, a natural tug to come back. I’m very much a product of two cultures. Superficially, people could say that I’m more American than Cambodian. They look at my gestures, my facial expressions, and the accent that I still carry. My present is informed by the fact that I lived through the Khmer Rouge. I was born here. I was given many opportunities.

I became a Christian in the United States and I think part of the strand of Christianity that really impacted my decision to come back is the idea that “To whom much is given much is expected.” I really feel blessed, to use a religious term. But it’s nothing dramatic, just a natural progression informed by my history, informed by the values I’ve espoused along the way.

Could you tell us a little bit more about your path to faith?

My parents were very much Buddhist. My aunts and uncles continue to be Buddhist even though they’ve been exposed to the church and live in a Christian American community. Some of my brothers would say that they’re probably agnostics, meaning that they could be Buddhists or they could be Christians; only one would stress his faith identity. The other two or three might see themselves as one or the other or both.

I have espoused Christianity as my own. Part of it was the initial exposure through Christian education, living in a Christian community. But I read a lot. I’ve read probably as much as any theologian on Christianity. So when I say I’ve come to own it, come to espouse it on my own, it’s not just through exposure but by deliberately thinking it through. So I would describe myself as a Christian, a Christian who is culturally Buddhist. I have no problem going to a wat or celebrating the Buddhist ceremonies, for example. Although it’s not a belief system that I hold, it is my culture.

Could you tell us about your work with CJR and CIVICUS?

Right now I’m very much fully engaged in civil society, human rights, democracy, and development work. I’m hoping to be in the role for a while. CIVICUS is a secular non-profit organization that focuses on civic responsibility. What does it mean to be a citizen? The emphasis up until now in Cambodia has been on the rights of citizens, and there hasn’t been enough focus on the responsibility side. A citizen is defined by not only rights but responsibilities, with two sides—sort of like a coin has two sides. On one side are rights, and the human rights community has been very active in imparting these rights to the population even though there’s still work to be done. What has been lacking is the emphasis on responsibility. Freedom without responsibility is chaos; it is anarchy.

So with CIVICUS we want to focus on civic responsibility. First of all, the larger mandate of CIVICUS is to transform Cambodians who are ‘subjects’ and ‘survivors’ into Cambodians who are citizens. Up until now we have never been citizens; we have only been subjects because we lived in a monarchy and it’s always been a one-way directive from the higher-up to the population. Then the Khmer Rouge made us survivors. Since the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia and since democracy have been implemented, we’ve been introduced to this concept, which we use but I don’t think we fully understand what it means or how to make it ours.

Right now, we (Cambodians) learn about citizenship as a concept, but haven’t yet translated that to identify how we are citizens. The basic way that we define a citizen is as a person with rights and responsibilities. Now the shift should be towards responsibility; not only the political rights and responsibilities but also the social rights and responsibilities.

Up until now civil society and the human rights community have only been focusing on one tier of people: the high school and the adult populations. With civic responsibility we have to go younger. If we want to form habits we need to start early. We start with ideas like "We shouldn’t be throwing trash on the ground," or "We should be civil to our neighbors"; things that are less politically sensitive or things we don’t normally think about as political rights and responsibilities, but more as social rights and responsibilities.

The Center for Justice and Reconciliation will soon be a major project for CIVICUS. It ties in well with the larger mandate of CIVICUS, which is citizenship. It’s just that the particular focus of CJR has been reconciliation. We’ve been using the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC, or informally the Khmer Rouge Tribunal), as a catalyst to jumpstart the conversation on reconciliation. The ECCC is within Cambodia’s domestic legal system but is fully financed by the international community, with participation of UN officials. Of course reconciliation has a religious connotation to it as well. I think is has been adapted by other religions but I really think that it’s more a Christian concept. I believe Buddhism is a philosophy, first of all; it’s a philosophy, not a religion. In the Buddhist concept everything is based on fate, so why do you need to reconcile if that is just the way it is? I don’t know enough about the other religions to speak on them, but because I know Christianity well, it’s hard to think about reconciliation without thinking of it as a Christian concept, even though it can be implemented and is being implemented in a very Buddhist society.

So CJR is focusing on reconciliation and CIVICUS is focusing on civic education. Soon these will merge in the learning centers. We are pushing for them in the provinces. Victims (of the Khmer Rouge) establish the learning centers, and through them they will continue the legacy of the Khmer Rouge tribunals, including housing the documentation. We want people to provide testimony and for organizations like the USC Shoah Foundation [an institute that works to document, archive and disseminate eyewitness accounts of genocide] to come and record their stories, or a less expensive version and simplified version of that, as self-documentation equipment is relatively inexpensive. CIVICUS aims to encourage this because, in the process, we will be creating forums for civic conversation. That’s ultimately what dialogues are: citizens coming together and having conversations. It’s no longer a one way street, it’s a multifaceted dialogue of everyone coming together and contributing ideas and creating a sort of forum for ideas.

Do you think the ECCC process will fundamentally change the way that children learn about the Khmer Rouge?

Of course, from beginning with nothing until now, there’s an explosion of materials. If we don’t weed through and have a triage of information, people will be overly inundated by it. All information is also not of the same value. We need to organize it to make it more palatable and to present it in a way that the population can absorb it; especially a population that is numbed, that is not used to formal or rigorous education. We need to be able to help organize the existing data from the Extraordinary Chambers, which will be produced and is being produced, as well as that which the Court has generated in the public sphere: all the films, all the interviews, all the conversations that people are having, etc….

We need to be more visionary, more creative, because there is so much material now which can already be disseminated to the public. It’s just a matter of figuring out the best way to do it. It is really the burden of civil society to help think through how to do it creatively and with limited resources. We want to be a part of that. The ECCC is already producing a lot of materials just inside the court, as in official legal documents, tens of thousands of pages in each report. These reports are rigorously researched and they are of a certain quality where no one can reproduce this because of the intensity, the resources and the process. So we need to translate it into the vernacular and make it available to the broader public that is already so intimidated by it. For example, the single Duch decision is 500 pages long in the Khmer language and almost 300 pages long in the English language. Even those of us who are habitually reading, we, too, are intimidated by these documents; imagine the average Cambodian!

The idea that publishing these ECCC decisions on the ECCC website is an adequate means of reconciliation is absurd! It’s almost a slap in the face. How many Cambodians have access to a computer and then to the internet and then will have the energy to read 500 pages of legalese no one can understand? This is a translated document as well, and we haven’t even talked about the quality of the translation. This is just one decision; think of the many reports, appeals and submissions, all of which are entering the legal process. No one is going to have the energy.

Right now the UC Berkeley War Crimes Studies Center, directed by David Cohen, is working to convert the materials to a virtual tribunal so it’s easier to access and so that in the future we can search by topics, by names, by whatever. We want to be a part of this. It may not be relevant now, but technology will only move forward. So we need to prepare for a time when almost every Cambodian will have access to the internet so that we will have content that is relevant and of high quality for them to absorb. So yes, the children are learning already, going from nothing in the curriculum to where information is free flowing today.

How does your faith relate to your quest for justice? Do you think there is a distinction between personal justice and legal justice?

Legal justice and personal justice are different, absolutely. First of all, there are many strands to justice. When we think about justice we tend to think only about legal justice. The problem with the ECCC right now is that we are speaking past each other. The experts are using terms that are so archaic and convoluted, simplifying “justice” into this very finite idea: justice is legal justice; our legacy is just a legal legacy.

But there’s legal justice and there’s social justice; there’s horizontal justice and vertical justice. Horizontal justice is between the perpetrator and the victim. For example, myself and Khieu Samphan; myself and Nuon Chea, myself and whoever I believe to be the perpetrator. It’s very linear and it’s very personal and this is where I think forgiveness can be made; but this personal forgiveness, which is part of personal justice, has nothing to do with legal justice. For example, I didn’t suffer under Duch, but let’s imagine that I lost my parents under Duch and I forgive him. That doesn’t mean that my forgiveness should acquit him of his crimes. The state has the right to prosecute him, which is vertical justice. I don’t have the rights or the authority of the state to give him a reprieve, only the state can do that. Of course, that’s one strand in vertical justice that I have no say in because my relationship is horizontal with him. Then there’s the other strand for me, and that’s divine justice, again like the state, is vertical justice. Ultimately, no one can understand that. If we could understand God, we would be God, right? I believe that there’s this whole element of grace that fits into divine justice that we cannot comprehend, which seems in one sense like injustice to us. This is the whole incomprehension of not being God.

My forgiveness ultimately has no say in whether the state should convict or not. This is why in the common law system there is civil and criminal law. In a civil case it’s Individual vs. Individual, but in a criminal case it’s the state vs. individual. Even if I as the victim choose not to pursue a case, the state will pursue it because that crime is considered an assault on society as a whole, not just on me. A rape or a murder is not just on that individual or on that family, but it can be enlarged to an assault on society. It’s the same in this regard with a murder. Regardless of whether the family has chosen to forgive the murderer the state should still pursue the case and it does.

What do you make of the phenomenon of Khmer Rouge leaders converting to Christianity?

This is the beauty of grace, the beauty of Christian grace. People throughout history have sought out Amazing Grace, but whether it’s genuine or not, that’s a different story. If these people think that somehow they can absolve their crimes before the legal courts, well they’re going to get a rude awakening. If we look into our own heart of hearts, there are moments where we think, “Really but for the grace of God.” In my own moments of frenzied high emotion, I’m just glad I didn’t have something around me with which I could have seriously hurt someone. Each of us has that disposition in us. Look at Duch. Duch could have been anyone. Put another Cambodian or any person in his position and we could have had a Duch with a different face. We know that in this society there are individuals with bloody hands who could and probably did worse than Duch. So this is really where divine justice is just not comprehensible to us.

I don’t know what to make of this phenomenon. I can say this; I don’t think all the conversions are genuine but I do believe there are also genuine conversions. Because it’s the idea of a second chance in real terms, isn’t it? As someone who has done something that awful, to feel that you could be given a second chance is very attractive. I have a former staff who has committed a very public crime; he lives with the burden of guilt so he tries to please everyone and over-compensate, unless it benefits him to be Machiavellian. His only way out is to superficially please people to release his criminal past. What an irreversible burden!

Do you feel that Cambodia’s current level of development is reaching both genders equally?

No, of course not. I don’t know where we’ve lost this along the way. In our past we really treasured the women in society generally because our vocabulary gives a lot of value to women. The prefixes that are female tend to be honorable prefixes. Then along the way women became second class citizens and have been abused and their condition now is horrifying. Women’s situations are really disturbing to me. Development has been unequal. That is seen most pronouncedly in the trafficking sector, with the problem of sex-trafficking.

What do you make of the fact that there are plenty of secular and Christian organizations addressing trafficking but almost no Buddhist organizations? Would you say that this is because they approach the issue in a different way?

I think it’s innate in the philosophy on the one hand and the religion on the other because if we just take Buddhist philosophy at its basis, it’s based on fate. It’s based on karma, which, again, is fate. So there’s not much that individuals can do; it doesn’t give the individual much incentive to do anything. Then there’s the whole idea of reincarnation. In the Christian faith there’s the whole idea that the image of God is an innate value. You don’t allow the image of God to be crushed, or to be abused, or to be raped, or to be in tattered clothing, or to be found in an undignified form. So already fundamentally I think there’s a diversion between the two belief systems. Of course the teachings are different as well. Predestination is different than fate. There’s a law that says if you’re taking care of the least of them you’re taking care of Jesus himself. It’s coming at it from two different perspectives, so that’s why it’s not surprising that the Christians are more active in social affairs. We have done a lot of terrible things in history, take slavery for example. Look at all the social changes in Western history and also in India. Gandhi came out with Satyagraha based on the teachings of Christ as well. Mandela has based much on the Sermon on the Mount. So I think we came from two different starting points. One says this is your fate, this is your karma. The other says you need to do something. This is why we have a situation where Christians are more active in the social justice fields.

In your mind what is the most effective means to combat trafficking and prostitution? Do you see prostitution as something that is inherently debasing? Would you agree with a solution that involved decriminalization?

I think that prostitution is dehumanizing, but in saying that, I realize many of these girls don’t have many choices or they initially didn’t have the choice (they were sold) and then got comfortable with it. Then there’s a whole element of shame where they can’t go back to their families and there is no social system to absorb them. So in saying that it is dehumanizing, I can’t imagine a girl being born and saying I want to grow up and be a prostitute. In any society I can’t imagine that this is an aspiration.

There is a difference between the reality and helping the individuals before us now without all the social connotations and condemnation which come along with that. I have to be careful to balance compassion with certain values we hold. So while I side with the girls, I’m not sure about decriminalizing. I think there is something more fundamental we need to address and that is the family social fabric. I’ve seen statistics that say as many as 90 percent (I think) of the girls that have been sold into prostitution have been sold at the hands of their parents. There is something wrong with that. It’s not just the selling; there’s something wrong a few steps back. What is happening in that family? This is where we need to understand how we can mend the social fabric.

We aren’t given the space to diagnose the problems. Part of it is being able to speak freely and be critical of the government. The government has a lot to do with some of these more entrenched problems. For me, it’s the fact that there’s no parenting, the fact that we don’t have civic education or any education. We know that trust has been broken; it was shredded by the Khmer Rouge. We had distrust before, but it was just shredded into a million pieces by the Khmer Rouge. That’s a big problem; we need to do everything possible to build that trust and we are not doing it. This might explain why parents can so easily sell their children, because there’s no emotional bond that comes with being a family. There is something to be said about the family unit. There is something to be said about the relationship between husband and wife, between parent and child, between siblings. This is why patricide and murders within families have a different resonance with us. It sends a different chill down our spines. We need to go back to those basic construing elements of what it means to be an individual, to be in a family, to be in a neighborhood, to be in a society. We need to start addressing those because the crimes are symptoms of those larger issues. We are not addressing those, we are not even putting energy into diagnosing the problems. We just start giving generic pills but it’s going to do more harm if we prescribe the wrong drug.

What is your impression of what Chbap Srei, the code for women, is and the role it plays in the struggle for women to become equal actors in Cambodian society?*

Chbap Srei is one of the tools, a sort of romantic thought, for a certain group of Cambodians in this current population who are overwhelmed by the fast pace of changes and they need to hold on to something familiar. It’s a knee jerk reaction. They say: this is Cambodian, so we are going to hold on with all our might to what they think is a strand of that identity and it’s this Chbap Srei. As we read the Chbap Srei, we read that it should be taken as suggestions, but they are often interpreted more as commands. They should be suggestions of a society at a certain period in time. Well that period in time is no longer relevant. We’re in a different period in time where the Chbap Srei doesn’t work. There has been CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women) and a few other legal instruments that say you can’t do these things or else you go to jail. So with the Chbap Srei there are certain elements which we can retain as suggestions, but they’re not laws because we have legal principles to supersede that. There is enforcement power in that. Chbap Srei is very backward. It was very much for a particular era and we’re no longer living in that era.

Would you say that it’s a Buddhist tradition?

No, because I’ve seen strands of it in other religions; it’s just of a different era. It’s a cultural thing, but not necessarily a Cambodian cultural thing. The idea that a woman should walk softly, should speak softly — there are a few other cultures that have believed such concepts at one point or another in their history. I think it’s a power thing; in that regard it’s very universal. They just tend to exist longer in our culture and society than in other cultures where they have done away with it.

Do you see a peacebuilding community that is separate from the development community? Do you see potential for their working together better?

Yes, I think there’s a difference. Peacebuilders are focusing more on trauma, on psychological matters, on social matters, on the internal, the interior life; whereas I think the developmentalists are more concerned with numbers, with infrastructure, with systems. It is a very simplistic distinction; of course they have more overarching, overlapping concerns than their differences, but I think there is a distinction. Both developmentalists and peacebuilders are focusing on education generally, though. Everyone believes that primary education should be strengthened. They may have different views of what they want to address after that point, but they all agree on the importance of education.

Do you feel that civil society space has been shrinking recently? Are people more afraid to speak out now than, say, five years ago?

In terms of numbers there are more internet users, more Facebook users, more individuals who have gained ideas and concepts who are speaking out; so in terms of pure numbers alone, space is not shrinking. But if the same individuals had the same tools five years ago, yes, space is shrinking in ratio to the tools available to us. Space is shrinking more in the minds of the leaders because they’re very repressive. They’re becoming more repressive. There was a marked turn at the end of 2008 where the amount of space just plunged.

This is why, for me, as a civil society person, we need to be creative. We need to make use of the tools. We’ve found a space where we can work, and that’s the space of the Khmer Rouge Tribunal. We saw that there is space there, and thought "How do we multiply this space?" And we have been able to do that. Right now you see that there is nowhere else where Cambodians can speak as freely when speaking about the Khmer Rouge history than at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal. It was deliberate. We didn’t do it all by ourselves, but we saw space and we saw that if we could create a momentum then it would be irreversible. People start to speak when they feel safe, and they felt safe when there was a huge international presence. The Khmer Rouge Tribunal had that. They felt safe and they saw individuals like myself speaking freely. Cambodians are always waiting for permission to speak, even in their own homes. You come in and you feel more in control of their home than they do. So we have been able to magnify this space. This space is irreversible. If the government wants to claim this space back they can’t. There are so many films out there now. There are so many conversations, not just my voice: 1,000 other voices can speak as strongly on the Khmer Rouge topic as I can. Before it was just a few voices, now it’s irreversible. Three years ago, no one spoke about trauma. We were criticized for speaking on trauma, or I was, and we didn’t have the vocabulary. Now they speak as if they’ve been speaking about trauma and using trauma vocabulary all their lives! And that’s encouraging.

The loopholes are there. The whole idea for me is thinking of where the space is that we can just push, push, push, because that’s my role is to push, and then to move on to another space and have others fill that previous space. For example, with our civic education program, we’re going to partner with Kerry Kennedy as part of her Speak Truth to Power initiative. The title is very provocative. We thought, "Where can we do curriculum and education like this where we don’t need to ask for government permission?" It is to work with existing NGOs. For instance, Don Bosco already has an existing education infrastructure, with about 5,000 students. We don’t have to go and call people to come and listen to us, we just go to them and ask them to use this as part of their curriculum, and tell them "It’s about courage, it’s about geography, it’s about history, it’s about all these things." We just need to be creative.

It’s interesting that you mentioned the Don Bosco Foundation, since it’s a faith-based organization. Do you think that the pagoda system is another space to develop civil society, or do you think that the space is too politically sensitive?

The government has divided that space. They have a political arm. Everyone, unanimously, would say that Tep Vong, the Great Supreme Patriarch, is a political actor. Bou Kry, the Supreme Patriarch of the Dhammayuttika, is much less political. So religion has been divided, politicized. We need to go back to the wats, to the temple, because that was where education was. Right now schools and universities don’t have dormitories, so people who come to the schools still want to stay at the wat—although now they don’t always allow it because it is so politicized. This is a regression. The temples used to be the learning centers. But now we have Don Bosco, and we have World Vision which has 1,200 local staff with the blessing of Hun Sen.

I really believe in the spiritual element of development. It can’t be written about as a policy, but the significance shouldn’t be undermined. We need to be more creative to take care of the social and the spiritual side of an individual. We’re all both material and spiritual beings. We need to take care of the material, feed people and provide them an education; but then there’s the education of spiritual growth too, which is really not the role of government. That’s the role of individuals, particularly in peacebuilding and reconciliation; we need to be aware of those matters.



*Chbap Srei, or ‘Code of Conduct for Women,’ is a didactic guideline for acceptable behavior for women. It was written in the mid-1800s and, per Trudy Jacobsen’s Lost Goddesses: The Denial of Female Power in Cambodian History (Copenhagen: Nordic Institute of Asian Studies, 2008, p. 120): “The key thrust of the text is that it is the responsibility of wives to ensure the good reputation of the family by maintaining a harmonious image of the home, regardless of what occurred behind closed doors. This was best achieved, according to the Cbpab Srei, by total obedience to one’s husband.”

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