Foreign Policy Blogs

Mu Sochua, Cambodia's Voice for Democracy

by Jessica D’Itri

Mu Sochua, 55, the most prominent woman in Cambodia’s Sam Rainsey opposition party is on the campaign trail three years in advance of the scheduled parliamentary elections. Sochua, a human rights and women’s rights activist, faces a tough and at times vicious campaign. The Prime Minister, Hun Sen, of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), insulted Sochua in April 2008 by calling her a “strong leg,” a sexually loaded slur, after one of his military generals allegedly assaulted Sochua and ripped open her blouse when she was protesting against CPP’s illegal use of government vehicles for campaign purposes. Sen’s insult prompted her to sue him for defamation. He countersued, and Sochua’s case was dismissed while his landed her with a 16.5 million riel, or approximately $4,000, fine. She has refused to pay, and since Sen revoked her diplomatic immunity, she may be arrested and jailed.

The CPP won the second-most votes in the first democratic elections in 1993 and joined the ruling coalition led by Prince Ranariddh’s FUNCINPEC, the royalist party. In 1997, Hu Sen staged a coup and ousted then-Prime Minister Ranariddh. In the 1998 election, the CPP won a majority of seats in and has ruled Cambodian Parliament since. Sochua was first elected to Parliament as a member of the FUNCINPEC and had been minister of Women’s and Veterans’ Affairs since 1998. But she stepped down from the post in 2004 and joined the Sam Rainsy Party, which is critical of the undemocratic practices of the CPP, including arrest and harassment of dissenters.

Sochua returned to Cambodia in 1991 after fleeing the country in 1972 to escape the communist Khmer Rouge. Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge, and his followers sought to reshape Cambodia into an agrarian state by exterminating the intellectual and business classes and relocating whole cities of people to the countryside for forced labor. Approximately 20-32 percent of the population perished from mass killings, overwork, forced marches, disease and starvation.

Today, Cambodia continues to suffer from the devastation of this recent past. The country has fragile political institutions and its population’s median age is just 22. Cambodia is ranked a two on the Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, where zero is highly corrupt and 10 is highly transparent. Businesses may pay as much as five percent of annual sales revenue as bribes and approximately 85 percent of the workforce labors in the informal economy.

During her long exile in Europe and the United States, Sochua devoted her studies and work to advancing human and women’s rights. She is a formidable person to take on the mantle of progressive politics in Cambodia. Upon returning to Cambodia, this Berkeley graduate marched for a peaceful transfer of power during the 1993 UN-monitored elections. In 2002, she led 12,000 female candidates to run for local elections, yielding 900 victories and helped to draft and pass the Prevention of Domestic Violence Bill. She was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2005.

A large part of Sochua’s platform is getting more women elected to public office. Her efforts have yielded results:16 percent of seats in Parliament are now held by women, up from up from 9.3 percent in 2001, the year before her big push for women candidates. (However, 21 of the 27 women in Parliament belong to the CPP and are not pursuing the progressive reform Sochua seeks.)

There is a host of other women’s issues on the agenda. According to the 2009 Human Development Report, Cambodia ranks 91st out of 109 countries or areas on the UNDP’s Gender Empowerment Measure. Women earn only 68 percent of what men earn and only 68 percent of women above age 15 are literate, while 86 percent of men above age 15 are literate. Sochua is also seeking an end to human trafficking in Cambodia, which predominately affects women and girls who are used for sex and domestic work. From 2006-2007, 43 domestic trafficking cases and 31 international ones were investigated, but the real size of the problem is difficult to estimate. Sochua appeared in the 2009 documentary Virgin Harvest, also known as Children for Sale, which focuses on the lives of trafficked and prostituted children in Cambodia.

The state of politics in Cambodia augurs ill for the Sam Rainsy Party in the 2013 elections. In January, the Svay Rieng provincial court sentenced Sam Rainsy, the party’s founder, to two years in jail for destruction of property and racial incitement related to disputes about the Vietnamese-Cambodian border, a trial which Human Rights Watch declared a farce. In February, Hu Sen charged Rainsy with presenting false documents and said that Rainsy would not be pardoned and, as a result, would not be able to run as a candidate in the 2013 elections. Rainsy is avoiding jail time by staying in Europe.

Despite her uncertain future and possible jail sentence, Sochua continues to push the government to “fulfill its promises to the people of Cambodia, which is to be accountable, and to support and to uphold human rights, democracy, justice, and equality.”