Theary Seng certainly knows how to grab attention. The prominent Cambodian-American lawyer and human rights activist was dressed as ‘Lady Liberty’, draped in flowing dresses, sprinkled with gold sequins and carrying a torch and flame when a treason case against her was was finalized in a court in Phnom Penh earlier this month. . The street theatrics had the intended effect of causing a stir and annoying the police. But the deeper narrative embodied by Seng’s antics is the crushing grip of the Hun Sen regime and the slow death of freedom and democracy in Cambodia.

The case against Seng and around 60 other defendants dates back to the planned return to Cambodia of longtime opposition figure Sam Rainsy in 2019. Rainsy, then leader of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), disbanded has since intended to make a big comeback three years after fleeing the country after being charged with crimes of defamation and incitement.

Hun Sen’s legal assault on dissidents such as Seng, via a justice system he largely controls, appears to be part of an ongoing effort to drain the bridges of his 44-year-old son, Hun Manet.

Seng and the others were accused of supporting the action before Hun Sen’s government managed to block the opposition leader’s return. All were found guilty, with sentences ranging from five to eight years imposed on the majority of the defendants. Others received suspended sentences or sentenced in absentia, having already fled the country. Seng received a six-year sentence.

International human rights lawyer Jared Genser, who is Seng’s pro bono attorney, told me, “Theary’s story is a window into modern Cambodia. Both of his parents were murdered by the Khmer Rouge, of which Hun Sen was a regional commander before breaking away from the group. She fled to the United States at the age of nine in 1980 and eventually earned science and law degrees there. She returned to Cambodia in 2004 and established a non-governmental organization aimed at helping genocide victims in the Khmer Rouge court and started defending human rights in Cambodia.

Hun Sen’s legal assault on dissidents such as Seng, via a justice system he largely controls, appears to be part of an ongoing effort to clean up decks for his 44-year-old son, Hun Manet, whom he is preparing to be his successor. Although Elder Hun has not announced a retirement date, he has hinted that he may leave office in 2028.

Of Cambodia’s $8.8 billion external debt in 2020, China accounted for $3.9 billion, or 44% (Arisa Chattasa/Unsplash)

In 2016, Hun Sen began to dismantle the main opposition CNRP party and initiated legal proceedings against numerous opposition figures, triggering the exile of Sam Rainsy and others. Another controversial election victory in 2018 not only confirmed the leader’s steadfastness, but also ensured that the pro-democracy generation of the 2010s is quashed just in time for what could be their final campaign/victory next year.

During the three decades of Hun Sen’s rule, the electoral process in Cambodia appears to have been a means of identifying subsequent generations of opposition leaders to be silenced in the next five-year cycle, until the process starts again.

But maybe this time, Hun Sen may have bitten off more than he can chew. Theary Seng is a US citizen – which requires the US government to act on her case under a series of US laws. “Charming Theary for these crimes was a huge mistake on Hun Sen’s part,” Jared Genser said. “We will take his case to the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.” He says he and Theary supporters have already hired “top executives at the White House and the State Department.”

The Cambodian leader has been actively working to soften ties with China in a bid to balance soured relations with the United States and the European Union since the crackdown began in 2016.

Genser also pointed to the Cambodian Democracy Act of 2021, which was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives last September and which he said “provides a number of new tools to put pressure on Cambodia. “. These include targeted sanctions against Cambodian government officials deemed hostile to democracy in the country. “We will work hard to get this bill through the US Senate.”

The Cambodian leader has been actively working to soften ties with China in a bid to balance sour relations with the United States and the European Union since the crackdown began in 2016. Of the 8.8 billion of Cambodia’s external debt in 2020, China for $ 3.9 billion US dollars, or 44%. A 2022 report quoting Cambodia’s transport minister says 70% of the country’s roads and bridges have been funded by Beijing.

Upgrades to the Ream naval base on Cambodia’s southern coast were funded by Chinese aid money and despite numerous statements from Phnom Penh and Beijing attempting to deny this, many consider it to be s It is an anchor point for the Chinese army in the region.

But Cambodia also needs the United States, especially for its clothing exports. Trade between the two countries has grown to $9 billion in 2021. The preferential trade agreement between the United States and Cambodia has currently expired.

Theary Seng’s case complicates relations. While Hun Sen and his followers hold all the levers of power, tireless pro-democracy activists ensure that Cambodians are constantly reminded of what a free nation could look like.