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ADVOCATE: The State of Cambodia’s Democracy with Mu Sochua

03/06/2024

ADVOCATE: The State of Cambodia’s Democracy with Mu Sochua

You’re now listening to “Advocate” by APHR, ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights.

Hello, I’m Karina Tehusijarana, Media Manager of APHR. I’ll be your host for today and currently I’m with Mu Sochua.

Hello from Rhode Island, USA.

Mu Sochua is a former member of the National Assembly of Cambodia. She served from 2008 until 2017, when the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) was dissolved. In addition to her work as vice president of the CNRP she has spent decades working as a human rights advocate, particularly for marginalized groups including migrants, workers, and women. She was minister of Womens’ Affairs from 1998 to 2004.

Today we will talk about what’s inside the Cambodia’s parliament, Cambodia’s Senate Election, the role of Cambodia’s MPs and Southeast Asian’s MPs.

This picture taken on October 5, 2017 shows Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) deputy party leader Mu Sochua gesturing during an interview at an undisclosed location in Bangkok. ©AFP/Lillian Suwanrumpha

Before we get into the situation in Cambodia, We’d like to hear a little bit more about you. So could you just introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about your background and how you got started in politics?

Good morning and thank you for having me. How I got into politics is really incidental. I left my country, Cambodia, when I was 18 years old after I finished high school. The war in Vietnam has already spread to Cambodia. The war in Vietnam not only spread into Cambodia, it really totally changed our lives because the history, the evolution from the war until where Cambodia is today is very, very significant.

After I left Cambodia for education in France in 1972. I returned and then I went on to have an education in America. I returned to Cambodia 18 years later. During those 18 years, so much, so much changed in Cambodia. From the war in Vietnam, that ended in 75. After that, Cambodia was taken over by the Khmer Rouge, the ultra rightist communist party that totally took Cambodia back to year zero, where everyone, anyone who wore glasses was a sign of an educated person that had to be eliminated. 

Bones of Khmer Rouge victims taken from a mass grave (©CPA Media Co. Ltd:picture alliance)

Eliminated meant either in concentration camps, in the sense that not like a Jewish concentration camps, but it’s more or less the same. It’s forced labor, it’s not a gas chamber, but more or less the same. It was dead on the spot. And the deaths that were, the killings that were conducted, were conducted in the most cruel way. Even sometimes they were conducted by your own children who were immobilized by the Khmer Rouge into their youth cadre.

So in a way, massacre, genocide is the same way, whether you are executed by gas chamber or executed in any form is execution. So genocide in Cambodia lasted for like three, almost four years, but took the lives of close to two million people, including my parents. So I left Cambodia when I was 18, very innocent. I returned 18 years later. What we saw upon arrival at the airport was a country that at the airport that evening, there was no electricity, whatsoever. I had two young children that were hanging on to me desperately frightened because it was so dark. We had to look for our luggage by using cigarette lighters or candles.

You can imagine, it was in 1989. You can imagine the shock at that time, physical shock as well as mental and emotional shock. But I moved on. From then, the Cambodia conflict, genocide ended with the signing of the Paris Peace Accords that allowed all of us to come back, the refugees to come back, for us to come back, and for the UN to establish elections and it was free and fair, people voted for change and it was then the beginning of a foundation for democratization prospects. The beginning of peace from 1993, that was the election, all the way to 2017 when the democracy in Cambodia fell apart again.

So in between from 1993 to 2017, I went into mobilizing part of the founders of the women’s movement in Cambodia, the movement for walking for peace, the beginning of what is a civil society, what is an organic non-governmental organization, and what is an independent media. It was really so rich. We were embracing this democratic environment where the presence of the UN, with the presence of the EU, with the presence of UNDP.

And then we embraced it in the most beautiful way, because it was the first time after genocide, after the armed conflict, Cambodian people could be at the same table disagreeing in conflict, but it was done in a democratic way. And that’s when we started to learn about what is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I didn’t even know what it was.

So throughout the whole thing from 1993 until 2017, I was Minister for Women’s Affairs for a while. I got into politics then because I was with the women. I led a movement to represent the women in the region to go to the fourth World Women’s Conference in Beijing. Then after that, I got deeper into politics and ran for office as a member of parliament and won three times.

Then the whole thing collapsed in 2017 because the opposition, our party, was really gaining so much momentum. It was for sure that if there had been a 2018 election where we could have been involved, competed, we would have won by landslide. And the regime, which is led by Hun Sen, who was in power for over 30 years, saw the bad results for him. So he had to dissolve the opposition party. He had to eliminate free media. He made a lot of threats to civil society, to NGOs, the whole thing fell apart. And that’s when I had to flee the country in 2017, in September 2017.

Hun Sen addresses the General Debate of the 77th session of the United Nations General Assembly in the General Assembly hall at United Nations Headquarters in New York, New York, USA, 23 September 2022. ©EPA-EFE/JUSTIN LANE

And I have been in post-exile since then, and I am also sentenced to 47 years in prison for the charges that are so outrageous. I am among the members of parliament from the opposition. We are considered as outlaws, we are most wanted by the state.

Today you can see that Cambodia is no longer just an autocracy. It is now a dynasty, because Hun Sen has put himself through the rigged elections at local and national level. His son is now the prime minister and he himself is the president of the Senate.

Joined the APHR

Thank you, Sochua, for that introduction, into your background and also the background of the situation in Cambodia. Can you also tell us how you first became involved with APHR?

ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, before APHR, it was the forum for Myanmar, for Burma. Yeah. It was during the first arrest and imprisonment, house arrest, of Aung Sang Suu Kyi. It was total darkness in Burma. At the time it was just Burma, not Myanmar, Burma. So Eva Sundari and other members of parliament from our party, from Cambodia, from the Philippines, Indonesia of course, got together to form the I can’t remember the exact name, but it’s something about Burma.

Aung San Suu Kyi (©AFP:Lilian Suwanrumpha)

And after that, I was invited to come and join. And then it was clear that we need to go beyond Burma. We need to go to ASEAN. And that’s how I got involved. And then it became the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights. And I was a member of parliament there then. It was very clear that we are ASEAN members of parliament and APHR has always maintained that status.

There were not so many of us, but we really felt that Burma, of course, is still the focal point. We went to visit Burma many times as parliamentarians. And then the situation in other member states of ASEAN on human rights like in Cambodia, in Vietnam, even in Thailand, were of concern to us.

The CNRP

Thank you, Sochua. You mentioned earlier that the democratic situation in Cambodia collapsed in 2017 when the then Prime Minister, Hun Sen, used the courts to dissolve your party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party. Can you explain a little bit more to the listeners about the CNRP and also the process of how the CNRP became dissolved back in 2017?

The opposition in Cambodia is a bit unique compared to the opposition in the neighboring countries of ASEAN. The opposition in Cambodia was actually first led by the former Minister of Finance, Mr Sam Rainsy. He was really with his position as finance minister, he wanted to combat corruption. Remember, it was in 1993, and remember we just came out of genocide and conflict, armed conflict and all that, and then the election that was held by the UN, that allowed change. And people like Mr Sam Rainsy, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, who was the prime minister at the time, people like myself and others, we returned to Cambodia. 

Mu Sochua and Sam Rainsy


So the leadership of the opposition was led by Mr Sam Rainsy who was sacked as Minister of Finance because he was going so strongly against corruption, which the regime did not want to happen. He was sacked, then he then led the opposition. So it was 1995 that it happened. And he led the first workers movement to demand fair wages, to demand humane working conditions because the workers before were working in conditions that were really dire.

The women could not even go to the toilets. They were making $55 a month, which meant just over a dollar a day. There were no trade unions whatsoever. The workers have no right. And then Mr. Rainsy coming from the West, educated in the West, saw that was not the unacceptable way. And so he led the workers to form their unions.

And it was really such an inspiring moment that the workers and the whole, he even organized and mobilized and advocated for small merchants at the market, people who were totally abused, exploited by the system. And then that’s the first opposition and right away, he got over 20% of the vote. And then it moved, it got further.

Every election, every five years, the opposition got bigger and bigger, to the point where in 2013 we won 43% of the vote. That is after all the ballots that were stolen. Even then, the rest of the ballots that came to us, we still had 43% of the vote.

And the opposition party is actually in Cambodia, and Cambodia National Rescue Party is a merger of the Sam Rainsy Party and that represented the workers and the rural poor, the farmers, merged with the Human Rights Party, or HP, that was led by Mr. Kem Sokha, a very well-known human rights defender who had his own organization, the CCHR, the Cambodia Center for Human Rights.

Kem Sokha

But as you know, Mr. Kem Sokha, who is still the president of CNRP, is under house arrest, and has been since, like me, I fled the country in 2017, but they were arrested and detained, and sentenced to 27 years in prison. He did go to prison, but then with the international pressure, he has been under house arrest. He’s now still going on trial because he is appealing to the Supreme Court against his sentencing of 27 years.

The Elections

Since the CNRP was dissolved in 2017. There have been elections in last year, general elections, and then also this year in February, there were Senate elections, which of course many international organizations have criticized as being deeply flawed and not free and fair. Can you tell us a little bit about these elections and your view on the process and the results?

By law, in the constitution, elections in Cambodia for the members of parliament must happen every five years.

The only free and fair elections that Cambodia has ever witnessed, gone through, is the first election that was conducted under the supervision as well as the funding of the United Nations. That was 1993.

And even then, and then for sure the people wanted change and voted for change. And that was really a, it was a, the participation rate was about 95%. People walked from different parts of Cambodia. Monks could register to vote, and could vote freely without fear. We, from outside of Cambodia were able to even vote. So in a full sense of free and fair elections.

Then after that, elections have always been rigged in smaller scale, medium size scale and full size scale. Rigged in a sense that first of all, the opposition was always followed, was never really free from prosecution, from killings, from arrest. And the scope of the killings and the arrest, smaller, bigger, depending on the political environment at the time.

Because we knew that only through free and fair elections or in elections that we could as much as possible help the voters to go and register to vote. So when we were inside the country as opposition, we mobilized all the resources. We worked with COMFREL, which is the Coalition for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia, like COMFREL in Asia. We worked to educate the voters, especially those registered to vote. And we helped with the technique. technicality, even providing the voters a photo so they can go register to vote, even helping them go register for their birth certificates. Because remember, we came out of genocide, so all these vital documents did not exist.

So we, throughout the years, helped the people, gained their vital documents, and helped the people understand the basics of democracy. Your vote is yours. No one will know who you vote for. The meaning of what is a political platform. And then we conducted the public forum. Even under a mango tree, even in the middle of the rice fields, we conducted these forums so that people can be engaged in the understanding of democracy.

Yes, so people can, no matter where you are, you can get the same education, the same information, and you have your, the value of your vote is the same anywhere, for anyone. So it is with this mechanism that we were able to limit the rigging of the votes. And that’s why we were able to gain more and more to the point where we could really, really be in power had it not been for Hun Sen who’s ruthless, he was just ruthless. He had no consideration. He had no fear, no shame whatsoever, not being democratic because he is an autocrat and now today he’s the father of the family that owns the whole of Cambodia.

We call them the Hun family from Hun Sen. His son is Hun Manet. His other two sons are all in high positions and the sons of all these high ranking officials of the regime, of the ruling party are all in the cabinet. They just divide among themselves the power without any consideration whatsoever to the voice, to the will, to the issues of the people.

Hun Manet (C), prime minister-designate and son of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, also army chief, arrives at the National Assembly during a plenary session in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, 22 August 2023. (©EPA-EFE/KITH SEREY)

Strengthen the Civil Society

As you mentioned, Cambodia is now under the Hun family dynasty with Hun Manet as this consolidation of power where Hun Sen and his family is basically controlling almost everything in Cambodia. In your opinion, what is the best way to strengthen the civil society in Cambodia?

We’re doing it in the whole picture of strengthening democracy, in the whole picture of regaining democracy. So we’re doing it as Khmers, as Cambodians, inside and outside of Cambodia. We believe, so now I’m the president of the Khmer Movement for Democracy, which is the umbrella of a for the Cambodians, Khmer people who are outside of Cambodia. We represent about three million people and the KMD, the Khmer Movement for Democracy, is a platform for all Cambodians, regardless of political affiliation, to champion democratic values, starting with freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of association.

So from outside we can speak. We represent the will of the Cambodian people. But it is mobilizing the diaspora, the Cambodian diaspora, to engage in building democracy inside. And democracy to us and for the people of Cambodia is about your right to have land. So even though we are from outside, we fight for our from outside, our issues are totally the issues of the people inside. So the right to have land, the right to have free quality health care for your family. and education for your children.

For women of Cambodia, it means working with dignity in conditions that do not equal enslavement to the factory owners. Democracy is really essential in order to build a better Cambodia. So operating from outside of our homeland, It is our strength. As we are not subject to retaliation or reprisal from the ruling party, we can elevate voices from within the country that might still be stifled. Otherwise, through social media, like podcasts today, the people from inside can listen.

Our message is always, always very clear, Unity. We can build Cambodia together. We want a better Cambodia together.

And from these people outside, we can go even farther. We work with policymakers. We advocate for policy, for bills, like for example in the United States. We go to Washington DC on a regular basis for the US Congress to adopt the Cambodia Democracy and Human Rights Act that promotes free and fair elections, human rights, and democracy in Cambodia.

And when it is legislation, that legislation gives the power to the President of the United States, to impose sanctions, targeted sanctions, on those high-ranking officials or companies inside Cambodia who have undermined democracy in Cambodia or involved in violations, serious violations of human rights, in corruption, in deforestation, and so on.

We also work at the EU level, I just came back from Brussels. I just came back from Geneva. From outside, we can monitor, we can be part of the conversation, the dialogue with the international community. By the way, these members of the international community, these democratic governments have signed the Paris Peace Accords in 1991.

So from outside, we are saying to the signatories of the Paris Peace Corps, review the obligations. If you continue to support, to engage with no policy whatsoever, with the regime that is now a dynasty, how can you say that you fulfill the obligations that are enshrined in the Paris Peace Accords, which is to promote human rights in Cambodia, protect human rights, to protect and really promote free and ensure free and fair elections in Cambodia. So from the KMD, from outside, we can, we want to be the voice, the voice of the people inside.

And for people inside Cambodia, we have connections, we are constantly daily in connection, in conversation, in dialogue with specific groups of people inside. By the fact that we speak, we have policies, PMD, we are from outside, we promote the same. We advocate for the same, we work on the same issues, for example on land.

And today, the land grabbing force evictions, it’s not about a few families. We’re talking about, in one community alone, 10,000 families forced out of their land. And the indigenous give up their community land to the state. And the state can give this land to the indigenous people who live, as you know, indigenous people live on their land with the forest, with nature.

And when they have the, they are forced to give their land, the forest, nature to the state, that’s the state that does nothing but to promote this policy of economic land concessions, meaning they can give up to 10,000 hectares of land to anyone. And that’s exactly what is happening. Just one small community around Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, that was surrounded by small lakes.

And these lakes used to be, so I say used to be, used to be the main economic resources, those to be the homes of thousands of families, are now filled in. These lakes are also a water source, it’s a place where all the water from the city can move into these lakes and the lakes provide other resources, national resources to the city. It’s now filled in and it’s filled.

And Hun Sen openly gives 10 hectares, 20 hectares, 40 hectares of a thousand hectares of land on this small lake to his family, to his own family. Even the wife of the prime minister can have land on these lakes. And then who goes to jail? The women who used to live from the lake. What does the lake provide? The lakes provide small fishes. We make lotus flowers, you know, in our cuisine, our food, our cooking, we use plants, we use lotus flowers, lotus seeds, lotus leaves, or bananas. 

These things are really small things, but it means so much. It’s so healthy, first of all, and it is the source of daily income, especially for women. who have no skills but to go to the lake. And now these lakes are filled in. And now the women, and I were just listening to the radio last week. The women who were trying to protect their little huts on the lake were physically abused by the local authorities. Of course, the women fought back to protect themselves and to protect their little hearts.

And now they are charged by the court because they are sued by the authorities, for what? For physical abuse of the local authorities. How can women be accused and charged for physical violence against the police who came to destroy their homes. That’s so blatant. That is such a cruel, cruel regime, a cruel policy of taking away these little legs of the incomes of the people to pour it into what is the so-called economic development, economic growth of Cambodia.

And we’re just talking about these as tycoons, local tycoons. We’re not even talking about the big Chinese companies who come in and totally, totally destroy the land, destroy the culture, destroy the community because of their money. And the money from the Chinese companies, from the Chinese mafia come from now. We just found out. And in 2020, during the COVID period, they established the hub for cyber crimes in Cambodia. And Cambodia’s revenue from cybercrime is up to 12 billion a year. And it goes on and on and on. And that’s why the regime is not allowing a voice, a critical voice, a healthy civil society in a real opposition inside Cambodia.

Regional Solidarity

Thank you very much, Sochua, for that. overview about what the KMD is working on and also the issues that are happening right now in Cambodia. Maybe just the final question for this podcast. As you mentioned before, and as you know, APHR was created with the idea of creating regional solidarity among parliamentarians in the region to help each other and their respective countries to improve the democratic and human rights situation. How can Southeast Asian MPs help create change for Cambodia and what kind of regional solidarity do you think would help improve the situation in Cambodia?

A very essential question for us, members of parliament in Southeast Asia, in ASEAN. First of all, stay informed of the situation in each country. And for this type of information, like through podcasts, it would be in the history of a country, or of your neighboring country. It could be the democratic process. It could be the daily struggle of the people. It could be a very personal issue. That as a member of parliament, as a parliamentarian, I think we need to hear from different angles. So the podcast or the newsletters or the statement, and the seminars, the workshops, the conferences by APHR. Well, we all are part of it. I think it is excellent. It should continue. And that’s number one, because it’s a source of information.

It’s also a way for us to communicate with each other. For example, asking for the members of parliament, or parliamentarians to bring the Cambodia issue to your parliament. the lack of free and fair election, of free speech. Let’s not go to free and fair elections because they consider this as an internal issue. But free speech, the issue of deforestation in Cambodia, because it can affect climate change. It affects climate change. It leads to climate change in the neighboring countries.

The issue of cybercrime. All of us are victims. The Indonesian, the Malaysian, even Indians, even Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and this is just a region, right? And when Cambodia, Myanmar and Laos are members of ASEAN, this is a big problem. These countries are really the hub for cybercrimes. I think parliamentarians in Southeast Asia, in ASEAN, should really take these issues to their own parliament, to the floor of the parliament.

And then on beyond that, I think we have to go not just through, just statements. I think we form a coalition where we can influence legislation and where we can influence policies. To promote democracy, to really protect human rights, and because it is about ASEAN, APHR is about ASEAN parliamentarians for human rights, and then we don’t just, we start with human rights of course, but we don’t stop at human rights. It is global democracy, you look at what are the issues of ASEAN, that ASEAN is as a community of the peoples of ASEAN.

The mechanism within ASEAN for human rights does not work because the real issues of the people are not addressed.

That it’s just not a mechanism where there is a real exchange of information, of reports, that ASEAN as a whole can take and try and resolve. The policy of non-interference, of consensus, the practice of consensus, is actually protecting its own member state from being reviewed by the whole of ASEAN. When there is a human rights issue in Cambodia does not mean it’s just about Cambodia because it spreads out of Cambodia. And Thailand is the same way. And Indonesia we see Indonesia as an icon for democracy but Indonesia is not perfect either the situation in Indonesia affects the neighboring countries and so on.

So I think it is important that we, the voice of APHR, is much stronger than this. As you know, you deal with me on an almost daily basis. Sometimes I get very anxious about no more statements. Action, action, action. What is happening, what is not happening inside Myanmar, for example, APHR has done everything possible. It’s not just up to APHR.

APHR has done, I think, a really credible job by creating, by focusing on just Myanmar, creating a special committee, commission on just Myanmar. As an organization, as APHR, I think that is remarkable. It reflects on the will, the determination, the commitment of the members of APHR in fulfilling the mission, the goal, the vision of APHR.

Thank you very much, Sochua, and thank you very much for taking the time to join us on today’s podcast. 

Thank you for having me.

That was an episode of ADVOCATE by APHR, ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights. Drop your ideas for podcast topics or interview subjects through info@aseanmp.org and let us know your thoughts on this episode. Before we sign off, I would like to thank you for your support and for tuning in. I’m Karina Tehusijarana. See you soon.

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ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) was founded in June 2013 with the objective of promoting democracy and human rights across Southeast Asia. Our founding members include many of the region's most progressive Members of Parliament (MPs), with a proven track record of human rights advocacy work.

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