Sara Veal, Contributor
When Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen publicly insulted an unspecified female politician recently, he got more than he bargained for: His implied target turned around and sued him.
The prime minister’s insult might be considered typical in a country with continuing gender inequality, but that didn’t mean Mu Sochua was going to take it lying down.
For 20 years, Mu Sochua has been a voice for exploited Cambodians. As the Vietnam War spread to Cambodia in 1972, the then 18-year-old was exiled, with no chance to say goodbye to her parents, who later vanished under the Khmer Rouge regime. She spent 18 years overseas, studying and working in Paris, the US and Italy and in refugee camps along the Thai–Cambodian border.
Since her return in 1989, she has been hands-on in rebuilding her homeland, first as an activist and now as a politician, focusing on women’s and children’s issues.
“I had the choice of being part of the reconstruction of Cambodia and I took that choice,” said Sochua, a member of parliament for the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP), the leading opposition to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).
In 1991, Sochua formed the first Khmer women’s organization, Khemara, and joined the FUNCINPEC political party, winning a national assembly seat representing Battambang in 1998. She soon became the first female minister for women’s and veterans’ affairs.
“What prepared me for the job was my early return, before the country was even officially open to the Western world, which put an embargo on it during 1975 to 1990.”
Her first ministerial act was to launch a national campaign for gender equality, Neary Rattanak (Women Are Precious Gems), which transformed an old Khmer proverb, “A man is gold; a woman is a white piece of cloth” into “Men are gold; women are precious gems.”
The rewritten proverb argues that women are as valuable as men; if “dirtied”, they can shine again like gems, rather than be stained forever like a muddied cloth.
However, in July 2004, she resigned, claiming corruption hindered her work. She joined the SRP, becoming the party’s first female secretary-general in 2006.
Her struggle has been recognized by several nominations and awards, including a 2005 Nobel Peace Prize nomination and the 2005 Vital Voices Human Rights Global Leadership Award, presented by then US senator Hillary Clinton.
Sochua, who is fluent in English, French and Khmer, and holds degrees in psychology and social work from US universities, says her international background enhances her work, but only to a point.
“The Western education allows me to know what the international standards are for human rights, for gender equality and for quality of life, and it allows me to set these standards for the women of Cambodia, but in a modified way in order to keep in balance values and culture.
“I am very clear about what can work in Cambodia and what is totally from the West.”
She believes the key to positive change lies in giving people the right to participate in national development without discrimination.
“[Development] must be based on the preservation of the country’s resources, which are plentiful but so badly managed because of corruption and lack of rule of law.”
Sochua’s three daughters have all followed in her humanitarian footsteps. Although she says Asian people look at her with “sorry eyes” when they hear she has no sons, she is fiercely proud of her girls, saying they inspire her to fight even harder for equal access to education and healthcare and for gender equality.
“[Each time] I go to the police station and work with survivors of gender-based violence, I imagine myself a victim and that my daughters are caught in this cycle of violence.”
Her struggle led to her decision to sue Hun Sen for defamation, after he allegedly called her “cheung klang” (strong leg), an offensive term for women, during a speech in her Kampot constituency. He immediately responded with a countersuit, a threat to remove her parliamentary immunity and a request that the Cambodian Bar Association investigate her lawyer, Kong Sam Onn.
Without immunity, Sochua faces imprisonment and her lawyer faces disbarment. However, she is determined to proceed with the case.
“If no action was taken against [his] words, the people will never want to seek assistance from me again,” she says, adding his comments violated her rights and generally devalued women.
While she believes she has little chance of a fair trial, with the courts said to be under the influence of the executive, she hopes her case will publicize the weaknesses of the judiciary and demonstrate that no one is above the law.
Whatever the outcome, Sochua continues to look to the future. She hopes Cambodia can eventually be economically independent and a key player in ASEAN, citing Indonesia as a model to follow.
“For that we need to be accountable to our people first and be credible in the eyes of the ASEAN community,” she says. “That is the long-term investment I am working on and why I intend to remain in politics: To give what it takes to bring new leadership for Cambodia and to give our youth of today a chance to have what youth in neighboring nations are enjoying.”
This determination shows she cannot be stained by any dirty words, no matter who throws them.