To be an outspoken critic of the government brings a heavy price in Cambodia, the South-east Asian country struggling to put behind decades of war and brutality, including the Khmer Rouge genocide.
Journalists, lawyers, lawmakers and activists who have dared have been hit with legal cases by the administration of Prime Minister Hun Sen, whose Cambodian People's Party (CPP) has dominated power in the still largely impoverished country since the first poll in 1993, which followed the 1991 Paris Peace Accords that helped bring an end to decades of warfare in the country.
Little of that has silenced Mu Sochua, a female parliamentarian belonging to the opposition Sam Rainsy Party. She has fired verbal salvos at the Hun Sen administration in her quest for justice. It is part of an over two-decade-long commitment to improve her war-torn country, beginning in 1991 with a fight for women's rights.
Sochua was only 18 years old and a fresh high school graduate when the U.S. war in Vietnam spread to Cambodia in 1972, plunging a country that had remained neutral into a conflict that lasted 20 years. She left her country for an education in the West but her parents, who remained, became victims of the Khmer Rouge atrocities.
Sochua, who only returned home in 1989 to help rebuild her country, was in Bangkok recently to speak at a discussion on the space for freedom of expression in South-east Asia.
IPS: The Cambodian National Assembly approved the final articles of your country's Penal Code this month, bringing to an end the criminal laws that have been in effect since 1992 when the country came under the U.N. Transitional Authority in Cambodia after the peace accords. Isn't this a progressive step?
MU SOCHUA: I am not okay with this Penal Code because of some of the clauses contained in it on defamation, incitement and insulting public officials. It is very, very vague. The government is looking to give a very wide margin for judges to interpret these features of the law.
These features need to be dropped because of the political and social environment in Cambodia. Every institution in the country is under the control of the ruling party and the prime minister. And the rule of law is very, very weak, and the judges are politically influenced by the prime minister or can be threatened by him. So jurisprudence in this sense has no meaning.
IPS: You give the impression that the new criminal code will be a threat to your country's young, struggling democracy instead of an effort to strengthen it.
MS: Oh, yes, very much. That is why our party is against this law. The goal of some of the articles is to restrict people making critical comment about civil servants, the police, politicians failing in their duty. It will make it more difficult even for me, for example, as a parliamentarian, to say that a minister is corrupt, because the minister can sue me since my exposure would be an offence under the penal code.
IPS: That should be particularly challenging to you, since you have been quite an outspoken critic of Prime Minister Hun Sen. In fact, you are having a legal battle with him – defamation cases – over a public speech where he insulted you. What are your chances of winning this case?
MS: I would be dreaming if I expect to have the appeal's court overturn the lower court's decision, which ruled in favour of the prime minister — unless there is some kind of political negotiations made behind the scene that I am not aware of now.
But this case is not about me. It is the trial of the justice system in Cambodia. I am determined to show to the public, the world, the international donor community that every single step of the judicial process is blocked for me as well as for other Cambodians who have to use the legal system to get redress. This is because of corruption, political maneuvering and the incompetence of the court officials.
IPS: So the promise made to the Cambodian people by the international donors who have aided Cambodia over the past 15 years remains elusive?
MS: The promises made over the past 15 years have failed. In fact, things have moved backwards. The donors who have been sustaining the system must be held responsible. The French and the Japanese who have invested to help reform the judiciary must be asked to explain.
IPS: But aren't you being a little excessive in your criticism about suppression of critical voices? Some government supporters say you refuse to acknowledge the tremendous growth of newspapers and television and broadcasting stations since peace was restored.
MS: We are not talking about numbers; we are talking about the quality of the freedom of expression. The government is helping the number of media outlets to grow to help with the facade of democracy. It is impossible to criticise the prime minister or the government. If I as an MP go to deal with a situation of violence or land grabbing, listen to the victims, receive complaints and then offer advice to these people, we are accused of incitement.
IPS: Yet Prime Minister Hun Sen has a larger following in the country. His party won last year's general election, marking the first time that one party had a majority to govern, ending years of fragile coalitions. So, despite what you say, he has the numbers to win elections.
MS: I disagree. The ruling party may have 96 out of 123 seats in our legislature, but look at the actual votes. The CPP got three million votes at last year's election, the opposition got two million votes, and over one million eligible voters could not vote because their names were not on the voters' list. They had been taken off the list. My name was taken off the list. So the CPP doesn't have overwhelming support. The voters' list needs to be re-examined; the CPP is refusing to let that happen.
IPS: You have been a champion of women's rights even before you entered politics in 1998. Has the space for women in politics widened and got better?
MS: I think so. There has been a change in attitude not only in the political sphere. I am now the president of the women's wing in our party, and we want to double the number of women candidates. The CPP has 21 female representatives in the parliament. In fact, they have opened up a lot of opportunities for women. They have a deputy prime minister who is a woman.
IPS: Is Cambodia then heading closer to having its first elected female prime minister?
MS. It is becoming increasingly feasible but not so obvious. I can say it is possible in 10 years from now.
IPS: Will it be you?
MS: (Laughs) You know how old I will be in 10 years, 65.
IPS: What is your answer?
MS: It will be feasible within my party because we are promoting democratic ideas. I could be one of the candidates, but there are other women who are good to qualify.