“A Democratic Embryo” | Best of GMF 2014 | DW | 03.05.2012
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Best of GMF 2014

“A Democratic Embryo”

Theary C. Seng – Cambodian Human Rights Activist – at the Deutsche Welle Global Media Forum

Theary Seng was born in Phnom Penh probably in January 1971. Under the Khmer Rouge, she lived near the border to Vietnam, where the killings were most intense and where she spent five months in prison. The Khmer Rouge killed both her parents. She and her surviving family emigrated to the U.S. in 1980. Theary C. Seng is the founder of the and the founding president of CIVICUS: Center for Cambodian Civic Education.

DW: Cambodia is an oppressed country, but it is your home and you have decided to live and to work here – nevertheless of your memories. How would you describe the status quo of Cambodia in present – is it a democracy with enlightened people and a free press?

TS: Yes, Cambodia is a democracy, but a very immature one; we are still very much taking infant steps toward learning the mechanics and principles behind what it means to be a democracy, to live in freedom, to speak one’s mind equally as a woman as that of a man, to have and respect different ideas, to embrace basic quality education for all, both rich and poor, both girls and boys alike.

The common people are embracing and hungering for democracy, which is the breathing of free air. However, their yearnings are limited by the tyrannical power of the leaders as well as by their lack of opportunities in education and employment, which facilitate the growth of democracy into maturity.

All to say, Cambodia is a democratic embryo, struggling to survive into a stage where it can live on its own.

DW: You say Cambodia has only a society of "subjects" and “survivors”, not of “representatives” nor “citizens”: “We have been subjects of colonialism and the monarchy; the Khmer Rouge made us survivors.” Your organization will change that and encourage your people to raise their self-awareness in a democratic way. Why is it necessary to start this kind of civic education with the youngest?

TS: Like many poor countries of the South, Cambodia is experiencing a “youth bulge” where 70 percent of our 14 million people are under the age of 30. That is to say, they were born after the Khmer Rouge genocide. That does notequate to mean they have not been impacted. Many Cambodian survivors experienced trauma. As violence perpetuates violence, so trauma is passed on to the new generation, even if they themselves did not experience the first instance of direct impact. We see this in real terms in the high rate of alcoholism, of domestic violence, of daily “random” violence, of impunity. These “bad habits” are being unconsciously breathed in by the young people.

Related, up until now, the democracy education has been focused on “rights”, and scarce on “responsibility”.

For me, a citizen is simply defined as a person who knows and exercises her rights with responsibility. Responsibility is only the other side of the same coin; it cannot be divorced from rights.

You and your family are victims of the Khmer Rouge. Now, 30 years (!) after the Khmer Rouge Regime, first judgements are being rendered and the trial attracts public attention worldwide. Why you are not satisfied with these outcomes?

The Khmer Rouge Tribunal had the potential to provide a satisfactory measure of justice, where we victims could have accepted.

This KRT uses the tool of “justice” to perpetrate injustice. I cannot accept such an assault on my suffering, such soiling of my parents’ memories and those of 1,700,000 other victims who perished.

DW: In terms of civic education you deem it especially important that people do not forget their history and remember injustices like that of the Khmer Rouge regime?

Yes, civic education is highly, deeply important in the rebuilding of a society which has been shattered from every possible angle, at every level. What is education but knowledge which opens the way to understanding, which in turn opens the way for reflection and wisdom?

However, it should be emphasized that we want to elevate honorable memory and do away with hatred and negative memory. We must remember but we remember with a redeemed spirit hopefully leading to forgiveness, with a will to want to redeem the darkness for something more positive.

I see all this being done through civic engagement and education, which is the more needed in a place like Cambodia.