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Cambodian opposition leader Mu Sochua speaks of government repression at home

Social-welfare grad faces potential arrest following testimony to U.S. lawmakers, she says

| 16 September 2009

"We cannot accept democracy fed to us by the teaspoon; we want full democracy," a Cambodian parliamentary opposition leader, Mu Sochua, told an audience at Berkeley in a brief but impassioned talk Sept. 14.

Her campus appearance came just four days after she testified before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, telling members of Congress that "democracy in Cambodia is experiencing an alarming free fall."

Mu Sochua (Cathy Cockrell/NewsCenter image)

According to the human-rights advocate, that act of defiance has been ill received by the ruling regime back home, and daily radio attacks against her by a government spokesman have taken a serious turn. "This morning … he used the word 'traitor,'" she said, noting that treason carries a prison sentence of 20 years to life in Cambodian law. "I am going home facing jail," Ms. Mu said with emotion.

"I have no fear of jail," she later added, "but I fear something else which I can't tell you — not the bullets, but the acid attack. That is very common."

A Cal alum who earned her master's degree at the School of Social Welfare in 1981 and Berkeley's prestigious Haas International Award in 2006, Mu has spent a quarter century battling sex trafficking, domestic violence against women, government corruption, and illegal appropriation of land in her country. In 2005, in recognition of her efforts, she was one of 1,000 women from 153 countries nominated jointly for a Nobel Peace Prize.

Mu has served in the Cambodian government as adviser on women's affairs to the prime minister and as the nation's minister of women's and veterans' affairs. More recently, as a member of the Sam Rainsy opposition party, her relationship with government authorities has deteriorated. Mu has been stripped of the immunity normally accorded members of Parliament, and on Aug. 4 was found guilty by the courts in Phnom Penh of defaming Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has held power since the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge in 1979.

In her talk before a standing-room-only audience of several hundred, Mu said her life's work had been informed by values she learned at the School of Social Welfare. But "what I learned on the ground," she added, "is that social work alone" — as a means to ameliorate her people's social and economic problems — "will continue to make the people feel as if they are victims.

"We cannot afford to let our people believe they are victims," Mu said. "We have to go one step beyond that…. If we really want a change, it has to be a political issue." Language and culture present barriers to political change, she said: the term "accountability," for example, has no equivalent in Cambodian, while the word for "opposition" implies someone who is confrontational and destructive. Working against such obstacles, Mu, as leader of her party's women's movement, spearheaded a campaign to identify and encourage grassroots women to run for office in their villages.

According to the Asian Human Rights Commission, the Cambodian government is increasingly using the judicial system to silence opposition leaders, journalists, and human-rights organizations. Mu noted that Cambodia receives $1 billion a year in foreign aid, $53 million of it from the United States, despite its flaunting of legal and human rights. She called on members of the campus community to demand that U.S. aid to Cambodia be tied to compliance with human-rights standards and to demand that those Cambodians who speak out publicly against the government not be persecuted for doing so.

"Send a signal to Hillary Clinton," Mu said. "I don't want to go to jail. With your silence, I will go to jail."

More information: "Fighting Cambodia’s Goliath: Mu Sochua (MSW ’81)," from the School of Social Welfare ENews.