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A Cambodian American Lawyer On The Importance Of Resistance


We have the story of a woman challenging the leader of Cambodia. She is a Cambodian American lawyer. She returned to her home country, and she is criticizing its authoritarian government, which is why she is preparing for prison. She spoke with reporter Michael Sullivan.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: It's always dangerous to criticize Cambodia's prime minister, Hun Sen. There's a reason he's been in power for 35 years and counting. Theary Seng doesn't much care. She's been a critic for years, though she claims to have recently toned it down.

THEARY SENG: I'm quiet. But relatively speaking, I'm still, I guess, a pain in the ass for Mr. Hun Sen, to a degree.

SULLIVAN: With a law degree from the University of Michigan, Theary Seng returned to her homeland for good in 2004 and has been a vocal supporter of the opposition, which may help explain why she was among more than a hundred people charged with incitement or treason in November. Just before her court date, the University of Michigan- and Georgetown-educated activist took a pair of scissors to her long hair and started hacking it off during a live video stream, explaining she was getting ready for prison and prison lice - prematurely, it turns out. The trial was postponed until later this month.

SENG: You know, I like long hair. I look like Peter Pan right now. And even though I'm saving a lot of money on shampoo, which is a good thing, I wanted to communicate with this regime that I do not fear it, and I do not fear facing jail on unjust charges.

SULLIVAN: But Prime Minister Hun Sen isn't backing down, either. Just last week, the government brought charges against several dozen more activists. Over the decades, Hun Sen has steadily squeezed out the opposition, and he's doubled down in the last three years, muzzling independent media and dissolving Cambodia's main opposition party.

SENG: It's heading - it's sliding into autocracy in a hurry. And the proverbial elephant in the room is China. I think the Trump administration has really encouraged autocrats like Hun Sen to be more bold and has encouraged China, as well.

SULLIVAN: A China whose influence in Cambodia is growing, most recently with the construction of port facilities in the south of the country, facilities Theary Seng and U.S. officials fear could be used to host Beijing's ships and planes.

SENG: I would like to think that concern for Cambodia itself is enough, but I'm not naive. The Cambodia situation should be a concern for the world. China and Cambodia creates regional insecurity and global instability.

SULLIVAN: But even with all that, she's still hopeful, in part, she says, because the 68-year-old Hun Sen can't live forever.

SENG: There are reasonable people within this regime who are keeping quiet out of practical reasons for survival's sake. It won't take much for them to change side.

SULLIVAN: Not necessarily because they believe in democracy, she says, but because they believe it's their turn. Her trial is set to resume later this month. She reckons she has a 50/50 chance of doing time, better than most of her co-defendants, she says, because of her U.S. passport. But, she says, it doesn't make her immune.

SENG: Physical security now is the big concern, in particular when I have to travel, because we have seen before that they use road accidents as a cover-up for many of these cases.

SULLIVAN: But she's not using her U.S. passport to leave, even though she has family in the States she hasn't seen for years and wanted to connect with over the holidays. I fled Cambodia once as a child, she says, and I'm not doing it again.

SENG: Because I fear that if I leave, I will not be able to come back to attend trial, that they would prohibit my return to Cambodia. This is home. No one can force me to leave my home.

SULLIVAN: For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Bangkok. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.