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Cambodia’s Democratic Warrior

Source: New Republic

Why politician Mu Sochua is the country’s best hope for political reform.

Can This Woman Bring Democratic To Cambodia? 

On a Saturday morning in July, Cambodian opposition politician Mu Sochua
traveled to the dusty, sun-baked suburbs of Phnom Penh for a rally.
Close to 100 Cambodians—most of them poor women sitting on plastic
chairs squeezed into the ground-floor room of a supporter’s house—stood
and applauded when she arrived. Wearing a traditional sarong, with her
silver-streaked brown hair tied back, the American-educated
parliamentarian took a microphone and began to speak. “People are in
the mood for change. The government is afraid of the power of the
opposition,” she said, her rising voice punctuated by the chants of
Buddhist monks wafting in from a nearby temple. A supporter dimmed the
lights, and Mu Sochua, who represents the southern Kampot Province, lit
a slender white candle, the symbol of her political party. She then led
the room in a stirring rendition of the patriotic song “We Are Khmer.” 
The next general election in Cambodia is not until 2013, so Mu
Sochua wasn’t trying to convince people to go to the polls. But there
was still pressing political business to attend to: She had recently
been the target of a defamation lawsuit, surreal even by Cambodia’s
authoritarian standards. In April 2009, Prime Minister Hun Sen used the
epithet “strong legs,” a colloquialism for a prostitute, to describe Mu
Sochua in a speech. She sued him for defamation, and Hun Sen
countersued—the logic being that accusing the prime minister of
defamation is itself an act of defamation. Predictably, the courts,
which are stocked with judges loyal to Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s
Party (CPP), threw out the case against the prime minister, found Mu
Sochua guilty, and fined her. She refused to pay the fine, even when the courts threatened to throw her in jail. 
Taking advantage of a seemingly bad situation, Mu Sochua used
rallies, like the one I attended, to draw support for both her legal
dilemma and her broader goal of democratic reform. And, in late July,
as criticism from human rights groups in Cambodia and abroad mounted,
the government backed down and ordered her fine deducted from Mu
Sochua’s parliamentary wages. She was spared from prison—but the
damage, at least to the government, had already been done. 
Using the defamation suit as a springboard, Mu Sochua had positioned
herself almost overnight as the leading opposition figure in Cambodia.
Her story garnered significant attention from both the local and
international press, the U.S. Congress and the European Parliament have
highlighted her case, and many Cambodians now see her as the natural
successor to Sam Rainsy, the longtime opposition leader who was forced
into exile following his own court convictions for criticizing the
government. “Before the defamation case, she was not very well-known by
the Cambodian public, but this case has raised her profile
significantly,” says human rights activist Ou Virak. “She’s the only
woman who’s willing to stand up to Hun Sen.”
Although Cambodia is ostensibly democratic—national elections
are held every five years—Hun Sen dominates the country with an
efficient, omnipresent patronage network that rewards loyalty and
punishes dissent. Corruption is endemic, the country’s health and
education systems are among the weakest in Asia, and, while the per
capita income has doubled over the last decade from a starting point of
nearly zero, the fruits of that growth are hoarded by a political and
military elite.
It was not supposed to be this way. In 1992, after years of Khmer
Rouge rule and Vietnamese occupation, the U.N. Transitional Authority
in Cambodia (UNTAC) arrived in Phnom Penh to administer elections and
bring an end to decades of armed conflict. Driven by guilt from
complicity in Cambodia’s misery, donor countries like the United States
and France made UNTAC the largest and most expensive nation-building
exercise of its time, and hopes were high that it would establish a
multiparty democracy that would protect human rights.
In 1993, 90 percent of Cambodians ignored threats of violence from
remnants of the Khmer Rouge, who were fighting an insurgency against
the government from bases on the border with Thailand, and voted in the
UNTAC-administered national election. By 1997, however, the royalist
party that won that election was forced out by Hun Sen, himself a
former mid-level Khmer Rouge commander, in a bloody coup. That same
year, Sam Rainsy nearly died in a grenade attack widely thought to be
orchestrated by troops loyal to Hun Sen.
Today, nearly 20 years after the arrival of UNTAC, diplomats and aid
workers rarely use the lofty rhetoric of democracy. Rather, there is
tacit acceptance that Cambodia has settled into a “one-party plus”
existence, as a recent U.S. government-sponsored assessment
put it, with the opposition providing the patina of pluralism.
“Democratic space is shrinking, and dissenting views are being
stifled,” said Yeng Virak, head of a Cambodian legal-aid organization.
“Cambodia is going back to square one.”
Mu Sochua has witnessed much of this tumult firsthand. As a young
girl growing up in a merchant family in Phnom Penh in the 1950s and
’60s, Mu Sochua’s father warned her never to go into politics. “He had
many friends in government, and he knew about corruption,” she told me.
She intended to take his advice, but the war in Vietnam intervened and
sent her on the long path to becoming a politician. With Phnom Penh
under rocket attacks from a growing Khmer Rouge insurgency, she left
for Paris in 1972 and ended up in San Francisco a year later. In 1975,
news stopped arriving from Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge had taken Phnom
Penh, and she later learned that her parents had died.

After helping resettle Cambodian immigrants in the United States and
earning a master’s degree in social work from the University of
California at Berkeley, Mu Sochua returned to Southeast Asia in 1981 to
work with the 300,000 Cambodian refugees living in camps along the Thai
border. Determined to help rebuild her country, she moved back to Phnom
Penh in 1989, worked with UNTAC, and, in 1998, successfully ran for
parliament as a member of the royalist FUNCINPEC Party, which was then
part of the ruling coalition. She was appointed Minister of Women’s
Affairs that same year, and she authored Cambodia’s first domestic
violence law.
The defining moment of her political career, as she describes it,
came in 2004. Chea Vichea, a labor leader and government critic, was
shot dead in the middle of the day while reading a newspaper on the
street. “I saw his body covered with blood, and heard his daughter
saying to her daddy, ‘Wake up, wake up,’” she recounts. Unable to work
any longer in Hun Sen’s regime, Mu Sochua left the government to join
the opposition Sam Rainsy Party. She vowed to promote policies that
protected democracy, human rights, and the rule of law.

But it’s been difficult to make a dent in her country’s
political and policy landscapes: Mu Sochua made her move out of the
ruling coalition at a time when Hun Sen’s CPP was ascending, and, since
then, successive national elections have only seen it consolidate its
hold on parliament. Opposition politicians accuse the government of
electoral cheating, and, undoubtedly, some vote-buying and intimidation
occur. But, in reality, the CPP has evolved into a sophisticated
political machine that no longer needs to cheat on a large scale to
win. (That’s why international observers agreed the 2008 election
Cambodia’s freest and fairest yet.) With its vast financial resources,
far-reaching party apparatus, and control of the country’s broadcast
media, the CPP has managed to use carefully crafted propaganda to keep
many Cambodians, particularly rural ones, on their side.

Where does this leave the opposition? With no real legislative
power, it is reduced to publicly antagonizing the government, a tactic polling has shown
Cambodians don’t respond to. “It’s a chicken and egg issue. Because of
the opposition’s antagonistic approach, there are lawsuits against
them, which feeds their antagonism,” Ou Virak said. Lacking the
resources necessary to spread its message and win more votes without
this aggressive edge, the opposition has turned to stoking moral
indignation about Cambodia’s situation abroad, operating more like a
dissident movement in an authoritarian country than a political party
trying to build a constituency.

But the international community, including the United States,
remains an unreliable partner, according to activists in Cambodia.
Donor countries can take credit for some achievements—for instance, the
revitalization of Cambodian civil society after it was decimated by the
Khmer Rouge. But embassies and the U.N. today are hesitant to publicly
criticize the government on its human rights record, allowing their
abuses to go on largely unchecked. “What the international community is
failing to do is fulfill their role of promoting democracy. The donors
announced $1.2 billion in aid the same day the court upheld my
defamation conviction. What’s the message?” Mu Sochua said.
It’s between a weak opposition and unreliable international support
where Mu Sochua might be able to step in and change things. Although
she speaks of feeling a kinship with Barack Obama and the U.S.
Democratic Party, it’s her emphasis on issues particular to Cambodia,
such as land rights for the thousands of poor farmers and government
corruption, that has attracted a strong following. By holding rallies
and meeting face-to-face with voters—a style of retail politics not
typical in this country, where many people do not know who represents
them in parliament—Mu Sochua is building a grassroots movement that
many Cambodians see as the best chance to revive the opposition and
hold Hun Sen’s government accountable for its actions (and inactions).
Though it is virtually impossible to quantify her support, political
observers in Cambodia say Mu Sochua’s star is rising—particularly after
she used her increased visibility in the wake of the defamation case to
promote her agenda. “She is a role model for many Cambodian men and
women,” Yeng Virak said. At the rally I attended, Mu Sochua invited a
woman to the front of the room and handed her the microphone. Dressed
in worn pajamas, with her eyes cast downward, the woman tearfully
described the daily police harassment that makes it impossible for her
to make a living as a vegetable seller in the local market. Mu Sochua
put her arm around the woman and said, “The problem is no justice. We
must find justice for her.”

While it is unlikely she could find this justice by single-handedly
unseating the ruling CPP (the next elections are years away, and the
CPP’s apparatus is still mighty), Mu Sochua could shine a spotlight on
human rights, judicial, and other abuses better than any Cambodian
political force in recent memory. Granted, this sort of opposition has
always been a difficult to build. While Sam Rainsy was exiled, lesser
critics, including the head of a cultural foundation who dared to ask
whether a lighting system being drilled into Angkor Wat might harm the
ancient temples, have faced prison sentences and either fled the
country or publicly apologized. And the government has Mu Sochua in its
sights: When the rally I attended was over, she wanted to tour the
local market and talk to poor voters, but her security detail advised
against it due to the many plainclothes police lurking. “Things are
just too tense right now,” she said.

But there are glimmers of hope that things might be different for Mu
Sochua. Back in the car, she discussed the defamation case and the
government’s decision to spare her from jail. “Hun Sen miscalculated,”
she said. “For fifteen months now, I’ve been dragging this thing out,
and I got free publicity.” But, while she may have avoided punishment
and been able to augment the reach and media presence of her democratic
crusade, Mu Sochua doesn’t think she’s won—not yet. “If the prime
minister were to admit that he was wrong in the past, and he called
everyone together for reform, that would be a victory for me,” she said.

Dustin Roasa is a journalist living in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

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