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The Cambodian activist and politician sees a jail sentence as the next step in her struggle.
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.”