To be a critic of the Cambodian government is difficult and, sometimes, dangerous work. But to be a female activist is even more challenging in the male-dominated society. Mu Sochua, an opposition party parliamentarian, is one of the country’s most powerful women. She is now counting down the days until her arrest on charges of defaming Prime Minister Hun Sen.
It all started when Mu Sochua sued the prime minister for defamation. Last year, Mr. Hun Sen called Mu Sochua “cheung klang,” which means strong legs. Mu Sochua says “cheung klang” was used in a disparaging way to disrespect her gender and intimidate the opposition. She sued him for the equivalent of 12 cents in what she called a symbolic protest. The prime minister responded with his own defamation suit, alleging that her lawsuit unfairly disparaged him.
Cambodia’s courts struck down Mu Sochua’s case but upheld the prime minister’s. She has until July 15th to pay about $4,000 in fines. But she says she would rather go to prison.
“It is my conscience that tells me I have not committed any crime. It is my conscience that tells me that we have to stop living in fear, and fear of one man who has ruled Cambodia for over 30 years,” Mu Sochua says. “And for me, it’s a gender issue as well. Because if I allow it to happen, if I pay the fine, what does it mean to the value of women who represent more than half of the people of Cambodia?”
Mu Sochua was not always a member of the opposition. From 1998 to 2004, she served in the government as the minister of women’s affairs. Since then, many more women have joined the government. Mu Sochua says the social image of women has improved somewhat, but that the changes have not been institutionalized.
“The women who are elected from the ruling party, the party of the prime minister, unfortunately do not serve their constituency because they serve their party first,” she says. “Which means that they don’t challenge, they don’t monitor the implementation of the laws.”
Mu Sochua says she is unwilling to stay silent while Prime Minister Hun Sen intimidates the Cambodian people, including those in his own party.
“It’s not about me and the prime minister,” Mu Sochua says. “It is about the opposition party making all its efforts to fight a prime minister who acts as a dictator. And it is about time to make a move for change.”
Authorities have not said how long Mu Sochua would spend in prison if arrested. She says she is mentally preparing to be behind bars for six months. Her case is not unprecedented. In 2005, several human rights activists were also jailed for defamation but released in less than a month largely because of international pressure.
The world may be watching Mu Sochua’s case, as well. The Cambodian parliamentarian is a Nobel Peace Prize nominee and a U.S. citizen. But she says she is not using her status to try to avoid arrest. She says if going to prison will help illuminate Cambodia’s problems, then she is willing to do whatever it takes.
Western nations often raise concerns about democracy and human rights in Cambodia, but critics say they do not do enough to hold the Hun Sen government accountable. In June, foreign donors awarded Cambodia more than $1 billion in development aid on the same day the Supreme Court upheld the prime minister’s case against Mu Sochua.