A Human Rights Politician in the ‘Kingdom of Wonder’
Journalist Michelle Tolson took the occasion of President Obama's visit to the Southeast Asian summit last month to speak to a stalwart member of the opposition party in Cambodia, Mu Sochua.
"I met Aung San Suu Kyi two times and she asked me what she can learn from Cambodia," said Member of Parliament Mu Sochua, referring to the Nobel Prize winning Burmese democracy leader. MP Sochua, speaking from her home in Phnom Penh a day after the 2012 ASEAN Summit ended last month, said she told Aung San Suu Kyi that "the rule of law is crucial. Cambodia has [only] the façade of democracy."
Though Cambodia has held elections since 1993, the country scored the lowest in the entire Asian region for the 2012 Rule of Law Index, an annual measurement by the World Justice Project. It is rated as a “hybrid regime” in the 2012 report by the Economic Intelligence Unit, which assesses conditions around the world for business clients.
President Obama’s historic visit for the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian National) Summit, hosted by Cambodia, included a stop in Myanmar. Media widely reported Obama’s speech to the Burmese people, but in Cambodia, White House, local and foreign press were ushered out of the room when Obama took to the microphone.
“I think they were concerned about Obama being too critical,” said MP Sochua. In Myanmar, Obama spoke at a university, while the Cambodia setting was a conference of heads of state from the region. “Nevertheless," said Sochua, referring to the exclusion of press representatives, "not an appropriate welcoming of a man representing democracy.”
Cambodia opened its borders in 1991 and held UN operated elections after the devastation of civil war. Sochua, herself a refugee of the genocide, lived abroad during the Khmer Rouge years and later studied at UC Berkeley. She returned to Cambodia in 1989 with a desire to help rebuild it. Becoming active in politics in 1998, she was elected to parliament under the royalist party, which at the time was the main opposition but worked in coalition with the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP). She was appointed to head the Ministry of Women's and Veterans' Affairs, but left in 2004, citing corruption and switching to the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP), now the strongest opposition party (with 26 of 123 parliamentary seats while CPP holds 90). The move has made continuing her work difficult in a country with a ruling party that sees opposition as “a threat to national security,” according to civil society representatives.
Party leader Sam Rainsy lives in exile under threat of imprisonment if he returns on charges human rights organizations claim are politically motivated. SRP has weak representation within the commune system (local government), holding just 22 positions out of 1,633. However, the party seems to be gaining seats within the National Assembly and recently formed a coalition with the Human Right’s Party. During the summit President Obama asked Premier Hun Sen to pardon Rainsy so he could return for the next elections. Hun Sen, party leader since 1985, responded within days of the summit by striking Rainsy’s name from the voter list.
For a functioning democracy the government and civil society need to be able to work together, and yet Sochua, a working member of parliament, has been ironically labeled “anti-government” for her human rights work. Civil society organizers risk the same label if seen with her.
Two days prior to the summit, the ASEAN Grassroots People’s Assembly—a group that describes its members as "farmers, fisher-folk, forestry activists, land activists, indigenous people, feminists, labor activists, sex workers," among others, including "artists and singers"—staged a peaceful march in front of the National Assembly to draw attention to flaws in the ASEAN agreement and Human Rights Declaration. When Mu Sochua came to the march, the group, which was negotiating with police to continue their demonstration, asked her to join as an activist and not a politician. She agreed.
Pisey Ly of AGPA said “We are independent from any political party. . . . I hope that she understood.” Mora Sar, an AGPA representative who heads a trade union for women who work in entertainment establishments, said, “Sometimes we don’t want her to show up as they think of us as the opposition party. . . . She wants to solve the problem and we want to solve the problem [but] we have to think of the people we are organizing.”
Constrained in her ability to work with civil society, Sochua is also limited in her media platform. The international human rights organization Freedom House reports: “All television and most radio stations, the main sources of information for the two-thirds of the population who are functionally illiterate, are owned or controlled by either the CPP or Prime Minister Hun Sen's family and associates. Opposition outlets are often denied radio and television frequencies.”
Mom Sonando, the founder of Beehive radio—a very popular independent station—regularly featured news of a growing spate of land evictions, including airing Mu Sochua's criticism. He was recently jailed for “secessionist plots against the government” and is still in prison.
Social media has been a useful tool for grassroots movements in countries without strong internet censorship, but Cambodia’s overall internet penetration is only 3.1 percent. Even so, Sochua says the medium has been helpful. “Social Media is more visible.”
Civil society has its own difficulties communicating with Cambodians. Prior to the summit, the Women’s Caucus, an umbrella organization addressing women’s issues, sought to present recommendations for ASEAN's human rights declaration, but its press conference was blocked. Thida Khus, a Women’s Caucus representative said: “The perception is to bash the government with a press conference.” The information that does get broadcast neither addresses human rights issues nor mentions the opposition party, according to Khus. “All radio, all TV—they sanitize the information.”
“We have to navigate every day with the government, the CPP and National Assembly," she added. "When we invite people to a press conference, everyone will come—except the CPP. The police will then say: ‘Do you have permission?’” Mu Sochua was to appear on a national radio show about women’s issues but the show was cancelled because the ruling CPP didn’t attend.
While Aung San Suu Kyi might learn from Cambodia’s history, some Cambodians have certainly learned from her legacy. Off the record, civil society representatives suggested that the opposition party would grow stronger if Sam Rainsy returned and faced imprisonment.
On the record, trade union leader Mora Sar said: “If he comes back, he will more popular. We will work to free him if he is arrested. That’s why I admire [radio station owner] Mom. He knew he would be arrested.”
Sochua, the local face of a party with an exiled leader, said: “I choose that path. You have no one to blame, you have a lot to be thankful for,” citing her personal belief system.
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