Voices from the Archive

Theary Seng

A Little Girl in a Cambodian Prison Finds a Cruel Calling for Justice From The Killing Fields of Cambodia to a Life of Activism

Wed, 04/13/2022 - 4:30pm

One morning in 1978, Theary Seng awoke alongside her younger brother in their prison cell in Boeng Rai Security Center, about 100 kilometers south of their hometown of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The children’s mother had been in the cell the night before, but now she was gone. 

Seng was about seven or eight years old at the time, and she had already endured several years of brutality at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, a radical, violent faction of the Cambodian Communist Party that had killed her father and forced Seng, her mother, her three older brothers, and her little brother from their home in 1975. 

That night in the prison, she knew her life had changed. 

“I knew right away my mom was no longer on the earth, that she had been killed that night. I just knew, even though I had awakened to an empty cell before,” she said in testimony recorded with USC Shoah Foundation in 2011. Her testimony is contained in the Visual History Archive and is featured in several activities on the IWitness educational platform

Seng was born in early 1971 in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, in the midst of a civil war that pitted a Khmer Rouge-led insurgency against government forces. After seizing power on April 17, 1975, the Khmer Rouge abolished civil and political rights, private property, money, religious practices, minority languages, and foreign clothing. Citizens could be detained for the slightest offenses, and the government set up vast prisons in which people were held, tortured, and executed. While the Khmer Rouge championed the peasant class, educated city dwellers were targeted as being influenced by outside forces, specifically the United States, who had heavily bombed the country during the civil war. 

During its four years in power, the Khmer Rouge killed an estimated two million people, one quarter of the population. 

April 17, 1975 is observed as a day of remembrance for victims and survivors of the Cambodian Genocide. 

Seng has little memory of her father, who was killed when she was only four years old. Still, despite the conflict, she retains pleasant memories of her early childhood as she grew up amid her extended family in the capital. 

After the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975, Seng and her family were forced out of their home in a forced, mass exodus to the county side. The family lived on the road, setting up residence wherever they could find temporary safe haven. They eventually settled in a community around a pagoda in Cambodia’s Svay Rieng province with Seng’s aunts and grandparents. Members of the Khmer Rouge lived among them. 

“During this period of the pagoda living, we were living in that state of instability, of confusion, not only among the population, but also the Khmer Rouge rank and file, the Khmer Rouge cadre,” Seng said in her testimony.  

Their stay with family was short-lived. Seng’s mother was informed by an old friend of her husband’s that killings were imminent. She gathered her children and fled from authorities, escaping via the Mekong River. 

The family moved from settlement to settlement in search of safety until they reached the home of Seng’s paternal grandfather, who lived in a village that was under Khmer Rouge control.

The guards in the village were no less ruthless than those who had occupied the area near the pagoda, and they forced children, including Seng, to perform harsh labor. Seng recalled the inhumanity that the Khmer Rouge instilled in its followers. 

“Now when we think of the Khmer Rouge, we think of the leadership. But the Khmer Rouge were the individuals or were the families, the Cambodians, who were of the peasant class who survived.” 

The chief of the village was a distant relative of Seng, who, according to her, had long been envious of her family’s prosperity. He ordered Seng, her mother, and her siblings to be sent to prison in December of 1977. The family was forced to walk in the middle of the night, enduring harsh pains of hunger. When they arrived at the Boeng Rai Security Center, they were met by the unbearable stench of the mass graves that each held between 30 to 50 bodies.  

At the age of seven, Seng held various prison jobs, including delivering the toilet bucket to the older prisoners who were shackled at night, and searching for animal manure in the killing fields, the sites of many mass executions. 

Seng and her siblings remember the prison guards being amicable and playful towards them. She suspects that this is because she and her siblings were some of the only children in the prison and the guards seemed bored.  

Such treatment was not the case for Seng’s mother, however, who was taken one night while her children slept. Seng said her mother’s disappearance marked an early end to her childhood. “I always remember that first morning,” Seng said. “In terms of even spiritual or, or soulful development, and I place that morning as key for me. Because it was really this, this almost physical separation.”  

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After their mother’s death, Seng and her younger brother were reunited with their three older brothers, who had been held elsewhere in the prison complex. Then, in December 1978, shortly after Seng’s mother was killed, Vietnam invaded Cambodia. The Vietnamese removed the Khmer Rouge from power and then began liberating those who had survived the genocide. Seng and her brothers were able to silently walk away from the prison. 

The pair spent the next few days on the road, searching for food so that they could regain their strength. They also took time to piece together the narrative of their collective experiences over the previous few years. After some time, they made it back safely to their grandparent’s home and eventually, with other extended family members, returned to Phnom Penh. They stayed there under Vietnamese occupation for five or six months, then decided to escape to a Thai refugee camp. After a treacherous journey through jungles and across minefields, they made it to Khao-I-Dang refugee camp in Thailand.  

Seng recalls her stay in the refugee camp with mixed emotions.  “Looking at the environment, it was still a very dangerous time. It was a time of neither going left nor, nor right. We were still stuck. It was a holding place. But then we didn't think that way. It was a moment–a time I remember [much laughter] and freedom. I associate freedom with the camp.” 

Armed clashes between Vietnamese and various Cambodian military factions continued through the 1980’s until Vietnam withdrew its troops in 1989. In October 1991 the Comprehensive Cambodian Peace Agreement, brokered by the United Nations, ended the twelve-year civil war. In May 1993, the first free elections in more than 20 years were held. And in January 2001, the Cambodian government established the Khmer Rouge Tribunal to try the Khmer Rouge leadership for crimes against humanity. 

Seng moved with her family to the United States in 1979 and settled in Grand Rapids, Michigan. In 1986, she moved to California, and earned a law degree from the University of Michigan Law School in 2000. Today, She is now a well-known lawyer and human rights activist. Seng tapped her siblings’ memories to write Daughter of the Killing Fields, published in 2005. She moved back to Cambodia in 2004 to help build democracy, and continues to endure arrests and trials as a result of her activism

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See more clips from Theary Seng’s testimony:

Theary Seng on learning the larger context of her history

Theary Seng on Being a Cambodian Genocide Refugee

Eli Gruen