Cambodian American lawyer and human rights activist Theary Seng began a weeklong hunger strike while facing imprisonment, on Monday, Nov. 7 to coincide with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit. The ASEAN summit is being held from Nov. 8 to 13 in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, according to ASEAN 2022.
Reuters reports that the meeting officially commenced on Friday, Nov. 11 with Southeast Asian government leaders holding individual meetings, prior to meeting with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, in their respective meetings.
U.S. President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida are also scheduled to meet with the group on Saturday, Nov. 12. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is said to be taking part in occasional meetings, according to Reuters.
Seng released a statement at the start of her strike, asking President Biden to push for her release, during his visit to Cambodia for the summit. She is currently being held in a rural prison in Preah Vihear province, where she has been prohibited from making phone calls and attending church services, according to New Delhi Times.
Back in Nov. 2020, Seng was indicted — alongside other activists and politicians, who were affiliated with the dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) — for criticizing Prime Minister Hun Sen and rallied support for opposition leader Sam Rainsy, according to VOA Cambodia.
Since the indictment, many chose to flee or remain abroad, away from the country. Yet, Seng chose to remain in Cambodia and was ultimately sentenced to a six-year sentence, choosing to draw international attention to herself, The New York Times reports. It even turned out that she had been given a harsh sentence, after the evidence that was presented regarding Seng’s case had been deemed insufficient.
Seng originally grew up in Cambodia and had been a victim of the Khmer Rouge field killings where she lost her parents. She chose to move to the U.S. where she pursued her education at Georgetown University and then became a human right lawyer at the University of Michigan, before moving back to Cambodia in 2004, where she’s been advocating for human rights since then.
Instead of running away, Seng chose to garner international attention for herself and Cambodia’s treatment of its people.
“I’ve been a [human] rights advocate all my adult life,” Seng said to The New York Times. “I wouldn’t step away from it now. All my years of human rights training would be null and void if I didn’t stay and fight.”
Seng deliberately wore attention-drawing outfits to the hearings, which were captured by international media and spread throughout. The outfits ranged from a bright red dress, the costume of a classical Apsara dancer, a formal men’s suit, a prison uniform and a self-made Statue of Liberty costume that included green sparkly face paint.
Cambodian Americans in the United States have been urging the U.S. Senate to take action regarding Seng’s imprisonment, even going as far as to attempt to throw a shoe at the prime minister as a means to hit him.
Seng’s imprisonment has resulted in further conflict between Cambodia and U.S. relations, especially with the U.S. pressuring Cambodia into closing ties with Beijing.
The secretary of state at Cambodia’s Ministry of Justice Chin Malin said that Seng was allowed to stage a hunger strike and warned the U.S. that its interference would be unruly.
“No one can force them to eat or not eat. It can’t help. It’s just a politically motivated message to attract attention,” he told VOA News. “Any party that wants to help individuals who violate the law in Cambodia must not threaten by using aid and putting pressure or penalties that interfere in the internal affairs of Cambodia, which is a sovereign state.”
The U.S. Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee has been monitoring Seng’s imprisonment, and even went on to draft a bill that would sanction senior Cambodian officials complicit in human rights abuse, suggesting that keeping Seng in prison would result in undesirable repercussions, according to VOA Cambodia.
It is unclear whether Biden’s visit to Cambodia will change Seng’s sentencing and what she’d do next in her fight for freedom.
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