GENEVA, Switzerland — Mu Sochua, one of the more impressive speakers at “Courage to Lead,” a recent gathering here of more than 40 women involved in human rights, is not a woman to be taken lightly.
After spending the last 20 years fighting for women's rights and against both human trafficking and general corruption in Cambodia, the deputy in Cambodia's leading opposition party has embroiled herself in a head-on clash with the country's perennial Prime Minister Hun Sen. The spat now seems likely to land her in jail.
At a superficial glance, the furor seems slightly silly. It began last spring when local tensions began to mount after Cambodian army soldiers burned several villages in an apparent land grab.
The army was not exactly popular in Mu Sochua's district, which includes Kampot, about two hours drive south of Phnom Penh. When Mu Sochua protested against a Cambodian army officer using official government vehicles during a political campaign, a scuffle ensued and Mu Sochua's blouse was accidentally ripped open. Hun Sen mentioned the incident in a speech, casually dismissing Mu Sochua as a hustler, who liked to expose herself and had a tendency to grab at men.
Mu Sochua has also accused the prime minister of calling her "cheung klang," which means "strong legs," in Khmer and is considered an insult.
If Hun Sen expected Mu Sochua to roll over, he was wrong. Mu Sochua promptly sued him for defamation in a Phnom Penh municipal court, demanding 500 Cambodian rials, or roughly 12 cents in damages along with an apology. Instead of apologizing, Hun Sen, who likes to go by the rather ungainly honorific “Samdach Akkak Moha Sena Padey Dekjo” promptly countersued.
Not surprisingly Mu Sochua's case was thrown out of court, while Hun Sen's stuck. Repeating his earlier slurs, Hun Sen went on to challenge Mu Sochua to take her case to international courts if she wanted, and to see how far that was likely to get her. Mu Sochua's parliamentary immunity was stripped away. An appeals court confirmed a lower court's verdict against her for libel, and the case is now headed for the Cambodia's Supreme Court, which Mu Sochua also expects to rule in favor of the “Samdach.” The penalty for losing the suit is a fine of roughly $4,100, but Mu Sochua refuses to pay it, and insists that she will go to jail for six months instead.
It may all seem like much ado about not very much, but Mu Sochua insists that there is a lot more at stake. Hun Sen, who was propelled into his current position after Vietnam ousted Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge in 1979, has held onto power ever since by making sure that his party hand picks Cambodia's 13,000 village chiefs.
“This nation has to be built on the rule of law and not just one man,” says Mu Sochua. “These people are afraid of democracy. The way they maintain control is by not allowing the people to elect their village chiefs. The Cambodian people live in fear of the village chiefs. At the same time the country has opened itself up to a market economy, which brings in a lot of money that is not managed well, which is why there is so much corruption.”
Hun Sen, who at 57 shows no signs of planning an early retirement, has plenty of reason for wanting to take on Mu Sochua's party. In November 2009, he had Sam Rainsy, who leads the opposition, stripped of parliamentary immunity for the second time that year because Sam Rainsy had removed several posts marking the border with Vietnam. Rainsy contends that the Vietnamese, who were responsible for Hun Sen's rise to power in Cambodia, have been engaged in a land grab for themselves based on questionable treaty arrangements.
Mu Sochua insists that her spat focuses on Hun Sen's vulgar use of language and the corruption of Cambodia's legal system. “What is at stake,” she said, “is democracy. The space for democracy is narrowed by the power of the ruling party, and mainly by the power of Hun Sen, who has his hands in every institution, including the parliament and the courts. He didn't just insult me as a woman. He insulted the parliament as an institution. I am actually taking the justice system itself to court.”
The story gets a bit more complicated since Mu Sochua received a 2005 leadership award from the Vital Voices Global Partnership, a Washington, D.C.-based foundation.
“This is also a challenge for the international community,” Mu Sochua says. “They invest $1 billion a year in Cambodia, but they never fulfilled their responsibilities by making it a condition that the government fulfills its obligations towards human rights.” Hillary Clinton delivered a brief address via satellite at the end of the Geneva meeting, but it was not clear what her take as Secretary of State would be on Mu Sochua's case.
Even more potentially troublesome for Hun Sen is the fact that Mu Sochua, who earned a Bachelor of Arts in psychology at San Francisco State University and a masters in Social Work at the University of California, Berkely, is married to an American who runs a major project on decentralization for the United Nations in Cambodia. “My husband is completely separate from my political life,” she explains. Her three children now live abroad, but both her husband and children are emotionally supportive. “I told my family that I am going to jail. Please don't talk me out of it. It has come to that point, Mom is going to jail,” she says. “It gives me peace in heart.” Whether it gives Hun Sen or his supporters peace of mind is another matter.