• Last month, World Pulse founder Jensine Larsen attended the Khmer Rouge trials. Read her thoughts and insights in "Butterflies Over the Graves."
• Read World Pulse's previous coverage of Cambodia, survivor and activist Loung Ung's tribute to her homeland.
• Visit the Khmer Rouge Trial Web Portal to get breaking updates on the progress of the trial.
• Learn more about the Khmer Rouge in Time Magazine's photo-rich presentation, "The Rise and Fall of the Khmer Rouge".
• Support The People Improvement Organization, a program that works to educate Cambodia's most at-risk children.
• Watch this short video biography to learn more about Theary Seng's life and work.
• World Pulse recommends Daughter of the Killing Fields, Theary Seng's memoir.
Ushering In Cambodia’s Peace
"We are imprisoned by our past and the Tribunal offers us a way out to freedom."
As Cambodia tries members of the Khmer Rouge for genocide and crimes against humanity, renowned lawyer, activist, and survivor of the killing fields Theary Seng pursues a long-awaited healing for her people.
My life’s journey has been one in passionate pursuit of peace—of mind, of heart, of home. It has been a selfish pursuit, in search of a way to quiet the violent restlessness and turmoil broiling within and without me, to quiet the consuming angst of being born Cambodian.
How to explain my homeland? The trafficking of human beings; the land evictions that strip those already dangerously poor of their homes and their livelihoods? The disdain and neglect of Cambodia’s majority, the poor and vulnerable? How to explain the staggering rates of domestic violence? The culture of corruption and abuse? How to explain Cambodia?
It is not possible to understand these things, to understand our current culture of fear and impunity, without first knowing the destruction wreaked by the Khmer Rouge during the 1970s. Now that the Khmer Rouge trials are finally upon us, at last buried truths can begin to surface and our country can move forward. Yet, beyond the courtroom, there are now endless stories emerging, many of courageous women survivors who are channeling their pain to hasten our nation’s healing.
I will tell you mine.
A childhood, bombed
Turmoil awaited me at birth. I experienced the first four years of my life in a Cambodia under siege, a pawn in the Cold War. Under US-President Richard Nixon’s orders, my country was carpeted with over half-a-million tons of bombs. The aim: to root out Vietnamese soldiers taking refuge in a neutral land.
In these early years, I grew up loved by a father who was oftentimes far away from our home in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, commanding his several-thousand-strong military men out in the many battlefields. When she was not visiting her husband on the frontlines my mother shepherded her five young children away from the bombings in the capital city.
I spent the next four years of my life fighting for survival—as much as a toddler of five, six, seven, eight years old could—from the consuming hell of the Khmer Rouge. Immediately after Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge in April 1975, my father “disappeared.” He was violently killed by the black-clad, young peasant boys who the regime had conscripted. This came only days after my mom had cheered these same men with welcoming, exclamatory praise. “Hooray! Peace is at hand,” she had said.
Just three years later, in a prison compound in the heart of the “Eastern Zone,” Khmer Rouge security guards led the prisoners—including my mother, my four brothers, and myself—into the night and executed nearly everyone in nearby fields and bushes. I later learned that nearly 20,000 were executed at this prison compound. That dark night, somehow, inexplicably, my mother managed to untangle herself out of my embrace without waking me. For some reason, they let the children live.
Peace eluded me even after Vietnam invaded and put an end to the Khmer Rouge regime in January 1979. The three dark years, eight dark months, and twenty dark nights of the Khmer Rouge reign of terror took the lives of my father, my mother, my aunt, and her newlywed husband. They took my home, my childhood, my innocence, and 1.7 million Cambodian countrymen. Every Cambodian who found herself with breath woke up from the “killing fields” (the rice paddies spread across Cambodia) in a stupor, dazed by the killing spree that claimed one-fourth of the country’s population.
At 9 years old, I found myself without my mother and father, displaced in a cold, violent, anarchic, incomprehensible world, without shelter or the security of a home. The Khmer Rouge had shredded my heart and the external sociopolitical confusion mirrored my internal chaos. After several months, my relatives came to the conclusion that it was better to risk an escape across minefields, Khmer Rouge soldiers, commonplace plunderers and robbers, and mountainous terrain to Thailand rather than to remain in a Communist, occupied, drought-stricken homeland.
It was November 1979 when my maternal relatives, my four brothers, and I crossed into Thailand and became the first group of refugees to start Khao-I-Dang camp. We stayed only one year before being called to a third country, some to the United States and some to France, whereas others wilted indefinitely in these squalid camps, some until a United Nations-sponsored repatriation in 1993.
We arrived in the United States as broken refugees, beginning life anew at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder. In the US, we experienced the dramatic absence of war. But internally, we were torn apart. The new reality of America did not erase the accumulated trauma and emotional weight of the past; in many instances, they were compounded by adjusting to a new culture, a new language, a new life.
My thoughts—no longer consumed by how to survive—focused on how to live without the angst from within, without the nightmares that terrorized my sleep causing me to act out violently against my grandmother who had the misfortune of sharing a bed with me. I focused on how to mend the fragmented pieces of my heart and spirit, how to purge the demons from within. I didn’t have a road map, and my relatives could not help—they were consumed with the same struggle. . . .