Cambodian activists on hunger strike for Theary Seng’s release ahead of ASEAN Summit

The jailed activist’s lawyer calls on Biden to press for her release during his visit next week.
By RFA Khmer
Cambodian activists on hunger strike for Theary Seng’s release ahead of ASEAN Summit Six Khmer Thavrak youth activists start their hunger strike and meditation campaign at a remote area in Preah Vihear province, Cambodia. They are calling for the government to release Cambodian-American lawyer and human rights activist Theary Seng and other political prisoners.
Khmer Thavrak

A group of youth activists in Cambodia launched a week-long hunger strike Monday to demand the release of outspoken Cambodian-American lawyer Theary Seng and other political prisoners ahead of the annual ASEAN Summit and U.S.-ASEAN Summit in Phnom Penh later this week.

Theary Seng was sentenced to six years in prison in June on treason charges, prompting condemnation from rights groups and the U.S. government. The lawyer, who holds dual Cambodian and U.S. citizenship, was sentenced on June 14 along with 50 other activists for their association with the banned Cambodia National Rescue Party, once the main opposition in the country before it was dissolved by the Supreme Court in 2017.

On Monday, six Khmer Thavrak youth activists – including former prisoners of conscience Hun Vannak and Chhoeun Daravy – began their protest at Tikheak Kiri Salavoan Temple in Preah Vihear province’s remote Tbeng Meanchey district. The group plans to continue their hunger strike in front of Preah Vihear Prison, where Theary Seng is being held, on Wednesday, before concluding the weeklong protest at Freedom Park on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.

Speaking to RFA Khmer, members of the group said they hope to draw attention to what they call the unjust jailings of Theary Seng and other political prisoners ahead of the Nov. 10 summit in Cambodia, which holds the regional bloc’s rotating chair this year.

“We will try not to eat or drink and only meditate,” Hun Vannak said, adding that the group will also pray for Theary Seng’s well-being in prison.

“This is to show the injustice of the government jailing innocent people, particularly Theary Seng. If the government doesn’t set her free, we will press on with other activities,” he said.

The protest is also a show of solidarity with Theary Seng who began her own weeklong hunger strike on Monday after the government refused to grant her an unconditional release. 

Theary Seng had vowed to do so in a letter written from inside of Preah Vihear Prison and obtained by RFA on Oct. 14, adding that, even if freed from prison, she would continue her activism in Cambodia until the country undergoes a peaceful and democratic leadership change.

Attempts by RFA to reach Nuth Savana, the Interior Ministry’s spokesperson for the Department of Prisons, went unanswered Monday, but he has previously said that the country’s courts would not be pressured to overturn her sentence.

Chhem Sreykea, another member of the Khmer Thavrak youth, told RFA that her group wants to send a message to the government that the arrest and jailing of innocent human rights and political activists is an abuse of power.

“The jailing of Theary Seng is a grave injustice, as she has devoted her life to making Cambodia a better place,” she said. “I hope there will be a resolution of this case and that Theary Seng is set free following the ASEAN Summit.”

Am Sam Ath, the deputy director of local rights group Licadho, said he stands with the Khmer Thavrak youth group and Theary Seng in their pursuit of justice, but expressed concern for their well-being if they decide to extend the hunger strikes beyond seven days.

“Hunger strikes are a kind of advocacy which the Khmer Thavrak youth employ to seek social justice and the release of human rights, environmental and political activists jailed under dubious charges and whose fundamental freedoms have been violated,” he said.

He urged the government to release Theary Seng and other political prisoners to avoid condemnation from the international community during the ASEAN Summit.

This photo of Theary Seng, distributed on Facebook the day of her arrest in June 2022, shows her in a prison uniform and with traces of makeup from the costume she wore to protest her trial and conviction. Credit: Citizen journalist
This photo of Theary Seng, distributed on Facebook the day of her arrest in June 2022, shows her in a prison uniform and with traces of makeup from the costume she wore to protest her trial and conviction. Credit: Citizen journalist
Lawyer’s statement

Also on Monday, Jared Genser, the pro bono lawyer representing Theary Seng, issued a statement calling on U.S. President Joe Biden to “press [Cambodian Prime Minister] Hun Sen for Theary’s freedom — and freedom for all the political prisoners’ of Cambodia.”

Biden plans to attend the Nov. 12-14 U.S.-ASEAN Summit in Phnom Penh, where he is expected to meet with Hun Sen.

Monday’s statement confirmed that Theary Seng had begun her hunger strike, in part to demand that authorities transfer her back to Prey Sar Prison in Phnom Penh, following her clandestine relocation in June to Preah Vihear Prison – a six-hour drive from the capital, where her family, counsel, and supporters are based.

During her time in Preah Vihear, prison authorities have repeatedly denied Theary Seng’s demand for the same rights afforded to other prisoners, including having weekly access to church services and the ability to make regular phone calls, the statement said.

Theary Seng was imprisoned during the bloody Khmer Rouge regime after authorities killed her parents, but she escaped and fled to the U.S., where she obtained a law degree before returning to Cambodia in 2004 to found two NGOs promoting human rights and civic engagement.

U.S. officials including State Department Spokesperson Ned Price, Under Secretary of State Uzra Zeya, USAID Administrator Samatha Power, and Ambassador W. Patrick Murphy have all called for her immediate and unconditional release. Secretary of State Antony Blinken pressed Hun Sen to free her and other activists held on politically motivated charges during a visit to Phnom Penh in August.

Capital security tightened

Meanwhile, Cambodia’s government said it is tightening up security in Phnom Penh, deploying more than 10,000 security forces to the capital to quell any unrest ahead of the ASEAN Summit.

On Monday, more than 100 laid off workers from the NagaWorld casino in the capital who have been striking for the past eight months defied warnings from authorities to continue their protest seeking government intervention to reinstate them to their jobs.

Mam Sowathin, a NagaWorld striker, told RFA that protests that include the beating drums and sounding of whistles in front of their former place of work would continue during the ASEAN Summit if the government and NagaWorld management offer no resolution in their labor dispute.

“If the government does not want to see our protest [during the summit], it should find a workable solution for us,” she said. “The [government] has only blamed our side, but they haven’t condemned NagaWorld’s owner [for unjustly laying us off].”

Monday’s protest dispersed peacefully, despite previous scuffles with police. In August, authorities violently clashed with around 100 of the mostly female workers as they sought to protest at the casino, injuring several of them. The group’s petitions to the government for assistance have largely gone unanswered.

RFA was unable to reach Meth Meas Pheakdey, the spokesperson for Phnom Penh City Hall, for comment on the continued protests.

Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.


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