Amid Cambodia crackdown, this leader fled. But she hasn't given up on change

Recognition abroad for Mu Sochua's human-rights work hasn't always translated into political power at home. As a political crackdown in Cambodia continues, she's been presented with unprecedented pressures – but perhaps new opportunities, as well. 

Mu Sochua, deputy president of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, listens during an Oct. 4 interview with Reuters at an undisclosed location. One of the loudest voices calling for sanctions against the government, she has fled her country, as have many in her party, amid a months-long crackdown under longtime Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Last month, Mu Sochua became an empty nester. Advice columns suggest that parents look for distractions. But she already has too many.

Ms. Sochua is vice president of her country’s opposition, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), and the country’s most prominent female politician. And the party has been in disarray since Sept. 3, when its president Kem Sokha was arrested on treason charges. Half its lawmakers have scattered abroad amid an ongoing crackdown, leaving Sochua one of the most visible members. She’s spent decades navigating the often hostile road of being a female opposition politician, but always relied on family for support. Now, a year after her husband’s death, and with all of her daughters and many colleagues abroad, she’s in especially uncharted terrain.

“If I was following my feelings, I could just use my US passport and leave,” she said over lunch in Phnom Penh, two days after her last daughter left. “Because it’s so painful, so lonely.”

A week later, she did flee – after a tip-off that she would be arrested, she says. Her departure was the latest of many in months of escalating repression under longtime Prime Minister Hun Sen, which has taken down independent media outlets, at least two nongovernmental organizations, and seemingly also the CNRP, which he threatened to dissolve. Analysts say the moves are meant to secure the ruling Cambodian People’s Party’s (CPP) hold on power ahead of elections next year, after the opposition nearly won in 2013. Now, with little left to lose, Sochua has become one of the loudest voices calling for sanctions against the government.

For Sochua, adversity is not new. She’s endured losing both parents to the Khmer Rouge regime, and decades of public hostility – not only as part of the besieged opposition, but as one of few women in Cambodian politics. She had to re-learn the national language, Khmer, after years of studying abroad, and is arguably better known in Washington, D.C. than in far-flung provinces of her country. But the crackdown presents unprecedented pressures – and opportunities – for a woman feted abroad, but historically sidelined by her own party.

“It seems like my colleagues finally realize, ‘She’s there, and she’s going to make decisions,’ ” she told the Monitor, soon before her flight from the country. She had just led a delegation of party officials to protest Mr. Sokha’s detention – a marked change from calmer eras, she says, when politicians tried to limit her to women’s and children’s issues. “In the past, she was there, but she was [treated] like the social worker there,” she says. 

An unlikely path

Sochua grew up in what was then a tranquil capital, the daughter of prosperous Sino-Khmer parents. In the early '70s, the teenager departed for school in France, then California, earning degrees in psychology and social work. Meanwhile, the Khmer Rouge swept into power and initiated its genocidal attempt to create an agrarian-socialist state, killing roughly 1.8 million people. Sochua lost touch with her parents and threw herself into organizing Cambodian refugees arriving in San Francisco. She was in many ways an unlikely leader: still in her early twenties, still learning English, still grieving for her parents. “I had no idea where I was going, what I was doing,” she says.

Don Cohon, a community psychologist who supervised Sochua during her fieldwork, recalls refugees whose trauma from the Khmer Rouge era was so severe that they “essentially stopped visually registering things.” Sochua was a tireless organizer who would “work with families well into the night” and who “nobody can really boss,” he remembers.

As Cambodia embraced the trappings of democracy in the early 1990s, Sochua returned home, working in refugee camps and NGOs to fight human trafficking and domestic violence. But she frames her foray into politics as almost an accident: winning her first seat in the legislature in 1998, then becoming the first woman to head the Ministry of Women’s and Veterans’ Affairs, and leading efforts to add more women to government – though they still made up just 20 percent of lawmakers in 2013.

She enjoyed the policy work, but didn’t have much interest in power plays. “I knew that I had nothing to do with the heart of politics,” she says. But her human-rights focus won recognition in the West, earning her a Nobel Peace prize nomination in 2005, and a Global Leadership award from the Washington, D.C. NGO Vital Voices.

The female factor

That appreciation hasn’t always followed her home. Sochua’s self-described disinterest in gamesmanship may have cost her career points. She lacks the fiery rhetoric and tactical eye that have helped Hun Sen maintain his grip on power for 32 years, for example. Dr. Cohon, for one, never expected his skilled fieldworker would have an interest in politics. “Sometimes I’m just surprised that she did that,” he says.

But part of why she struggles to be taken seriously, Sochua and other observers say, is her gender – a familiar challenge for female politicians worldwide. While the opposition pitches itself as a natural home for the oppressed, the CNRP’s senior ranks remain a Cambodian old-boys club. Sochua’s promotion to vice president in March marks the highest office for any female politician in modern Cambodia.

At protests, other members say, “Mu Sochua, you walk first, because they won’t hit women,” she recounted. If Sochua cried, they told her to dry her eyes. Sometimes, gender is a more explicit factor: In 2009, for example, Hun Sen referred to Sochua as “strong legs,” a Khmer euphemism for a prostitute. She sued him for defamation, but Hun Sen immediately countersued and won, drawing attention to a court system whose civil justice system ranks last in the world, according to the World Justice Project’s Rule of Law Index.

Like all women in power, Sochua has to constantly police her feelings, says Chak Sopheap, executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights. “In the exact same situation, a woman will be called pushy, while a man would be referred to as having [been] strong,” she says. “Men are referred to as per their actions; women as per their emotions.”

Son Chhay, a senior CNRP lawmaker, calls Sochua “very pushy” and “very brave” but worries that she acts “more like an activist than a politician.”

“We are hoping that she learns to become a real politician,” he says, someone who does “not allow emotion to overcome your speech or your decisions.”

Thida Khus, who worked with Sochua in her advocacy days and now heads the women's rights NGO Silaka, also argues that gender has shaped Sochua’s treatment within the CNRP. “When they need something to be done, she is on the front lines, like right now,” Ms. Khus says. “And when things settle down … she does not get the recognition.” 

With Hun Sen warning that the Supreme Court would soon dissolve the CNRP, Sochua’s overseas audience may present the best hope for the party’s survival. But even if that push is successful, it’s not clear what the victory would mean for her at home. 

“Is her party ready for her to be the leader?” Khus asks. “That’s my question.”

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