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A Letter from a Cambodian Woman in Exile

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A Letter from a Cambodian Woman in Exile

Prime Minister Hun Sen’s onslaught against the Cambodian opposition has not ceased.

A Letter from a Cambodian Woman in Exile
Credit: Unsplash/Pj Go

I am writing this letter in the last weeks before my planned return to my motherland, facing the prospect of living out my last years behind bars. I write this letter from exile to provide the background to the charges my colleagues and I are accused of, and explain the reason for my planned return.

As deputy president of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), I have been charged with a range of crimes including “conspiring to commit treason” and “incitement to commit felony,” and am one among 125 opposition leaders, members, supporters and activists facing a politically-driven mass trial in Cambodia in the coming months. If found guilty, I face up to 30 years in prison.

In September 2017, shortly after the CNRP came close to legitimately defeating Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) in an important local election, our leader Kem Sokha was arrested on trumped-up charges. Weeks later, in fear of being detained, several other CNRP leaders and I fled the country. In direct response to the party’s popularity, in November 2017, Hun Sen – in power for over three decades – and his ruling government dissolved the CNRP, accusing it of attempting to overthrow the government.

Hun Sen’s onslaught against the opposition has not ceased. In 2020, at least 45 CNRP members and supporters have been arrested on falsified charges, leading to the current trials taking place.

Returning to one’s homeland is a fundamental right, as is being present at one’s own trial. For me, it is important to be present in solidarity with our party members and supporters who have been threatened, physically assaulted, unjustly arrested, tried, and sentenced to lengthy prison sentences. Among the victims is an 15-year-old boy with autism and a pregnant woman. The latest case is an activist detained with her four-year-old son. My planned return to Cambodia is also a call for peaceful action for national reconciliation three years after the CNRP was unconstitutionally dissolved as part of Hun Sen’s plan to win the 2018 election uncontested. As a result, Cambodia is now a one-party state.

My Cambodian passport was revoked last year, and I have no alternative than to apply for a visa to enter Cambodia as a U.S. citizen. If authorities grant me the right to return for my trial, I will likely be immediately arrested and put in detention until there is a verdict.

I have been on this journey for justice for more than two decades as a human rights defender and politician, on a stance that echoes Dr Martin Luther King Jr.’s definition of “positive peace as the presence of justice.”

I had the honor to be the first woman in Cambodia to lead the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, between 1998 and 2004, conducting a campaign aimed at combating gender-based violence, leading to the adoption of the Prevention of Domestic Violence Law. Speaking to women about their experiences showed me the struggles they live each day and opened my eyes to the real meaning of injustice and discrimination.

The wrongs our women face are embedded in society, in every sector, and particularly the judicial system. There is nothing more demoralizing or frightening for a young woman than to be forced by the courts to remain with a man who beats and controls her, simply because he is the father of her children. The world over, democracies are increasingly measured by the number of women in parliament – and yet, they continue to face more gender-based harassment than their male peers, only to be told “not to be so emotional” or, worse, that sexual slander is “normal” and not even a crime.

What I witnessed and experienced in the role of Minister became the base for me to advocate for policies that ensure equitable and sustainable development. I saw it as a necessity to equip these women with the knowledge of laws to protect them and to enhance their self-confidence and resilience as survivors.

In 2004, I quit my own party and stepped down as minister, when it became clear I could no longer serve a corrupt government and be part of the unjust status quo. I joined the opposition party and began a new journey towards justice and peace for all Cambodians.

I won my parliamentary seat for two five-year terms, leading the opposition in key provinces. Our calls for major reforms gained tremendous support, not only in urban areas but even in former strongholds of the ruling party.

Those years serving the constituents took me off the beaten track to witness sides of Cambodia I would have never otherwise seen. This included many uplifting moments, but also many heartbreaking ones. We tended to the wounds inflicted upon villagers by squads and army soldiers hired to carry out forced and brutal evictions, and spoke with mothers who had breastfed their infants as they watched their homes burned to the ground – all in the name of economic development. Cambodia is being put up for sale.

Even today, many of these communities are replaced with private developments, industrial economic zones, or gated communities. The legitimate owners receive almost no compensation, forcing them to move and live as squatters in the cities. Many young men head to Thailand as migrant workers, while young women often work in factories for low wages producing garments for markets in Western countries.

I participated in, and at times, led many public protests. I was briefly put in prison. Not once did we call for the use of violence, but instead we adhered to the fundamental principles of active non-violence and peaceful resistance.

Leading protests against injustice is not treason. It is about demanding solutions to conflict through dialogue, and turning tension into opportunities to build trust. Referring to universal human rights principles is not treason, but empowering people to defend their dignity and their rights to live as free people, not subject to discrimination and ill treatment. We say: “Fear No More.”

We stand with our people to defend freedom of speech and assembly. We demand free and fair elections so we can put Cambodia back on a democratic track. We incite no one to commit a felony, but aim to empower the people.

Our party may have been dissolved by the authoritarian regime in Cambodia, and our members inside the country silenced, but we have kept the international community informed and engaged in finding solutions to saving democracy in our country.

Together we speak with one voice to deliver to our people the justice they have been denied. We must not accept a double-standard applied to justice. We must not wait silently for courts to submit false charges. We will face prison, if that’s what it takes. We call on all democratic governments to do their part to act on the obligation to protect and defend human rights.

Dialogue is not a sign of weakness but a demonstration of tolerance.  We are one people. We are one nation.

Mu Sochua is an outspoken and respected Cambodian politician who has dedicated her life to fighting for women’s rights and democracy in S. E. Asia. She is deputy president of the banned Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).