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Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Exiled for Years, Cambodian Activist Hopes for Justice

Mu Sochua lost her parents to the Khmer Rouge, but hasn't lost her will. She will tell her story after a documentary screening on Saturday at the Seabury Center.


The Cambodia of Mu Sochua's childhood was a nation of peace. The rice paddies in the north were a verdant green. The lakes were full of fish. The beaches were unspoiled. For the first time in a century, the country was independent and free.

"I look back at that childhood as a place that was heaven," she said.

But as Sochua grew older, turmoil took over. The United States backed a coup that overthrew the head of state, who was believed to be sympathetic to the Communists despite remaining neutral. The country was bombed during the Vietnam War, and a man educated in Paris began to gain power. Soon, Saloth Sar, better known as Pol Pot, became the new leader.

He instituted genocide in a country that had known peace just a decade earlier.

In 1972, Sochua had just completed high school and her wealthy parents sent her to safety in France as Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge strengthened. The parents stayed behind.

"My parents didn't want to leave. They did not think that there would be genocide," she said. "My father always said he would live in Cambodia and he would die in Cambodia."

Like so many others, her mother and father disappeared. They were never heard from again.

Sochua bears the scars of a country that has forgotten about justice. She has dedicated her life to bringing economic, social and criminal justice to a country that barely knows the meaning of the word.

"It's a scar as if you were attacked by acid and, very sadly, some of the victims will not get out because the system is not forgiving and there are no opportunities," she said.

Bringing the Fight to Westport

In a house not far from Staples High School, Sochua wrapped herself in a shawl to keep warm. She arrived from Phnom Penh, Cambodia's capital that rarely sees the temperature dip below 70 degrees, the day before. She spoke of a country with a modern airport, an infrastructure of roads and two million annual tourists.

"That is what you see on the surface from the outside," the 56-year-old said. "Underneath it, for a society to be called stable, you have to look at freedom, human rights, the justice system, the role of the media and then you have to look at the government at all levels."

In those areas, she said, Cambodia has not developed.

For example, if a woman is raped, she is expected to pay an exorbitant amount of money for the case to be heard by a judge. Evidence can disappear and witness intimidation is common. Property is unlawfully seized by corrupt officials, and men often have to leave the country to find degrading work since mostly women are employed in nearby garment factories.

Sochua was a guest in the home of Roberta Cooper, of the Connecticut branch of the nationwide nonprofit Vital Voices. The organization is dedicated to helping women in developing countries.

When Sochua was elected to parliament in 1998, she was a rising political star despite the inequality women face throughout the country. She galvanized other women in the country to run for office and even landed a spot in the cabinet, one of only two women to do so. While serving in office, she saw corruption firsthand and resigned in 2004, switching to the opposition party.

All of this corruption happens even though Cambodia calls itself a democracy.

"This type of democracy – there's no shape. There's no form. There's only a name," she said.

Several times a year, Sochua leaves Cambodia to raise awareness and funds for local charities. Westport is one of her stops as she heads to a forum in New York City, to the west coast for Thanksgiving with some family members and a visit to the European Union Parliament in Brussels with former President Bill Clinton.

Last week, she met with Hillary Clinton when the secretary of state visited Cambodia. Clinton urged human rights progress and justice for the Khmer Rouge officials standing trial for their genocidal crimes.

"Countries that are held prisoner to their past can never break those chains and build the kind of future that their children deserve," Clinton said from Cambodia. "Although I am well aware the work of the tribunal is painful, it is necessary to ensure a lasting peace."

Exile

After a year in a Paris, Sochua relocated to the United States. She was able to obtain scholarships and received a psychology degree from San Francisco State University and a master's degree in social work from Berkeley.

She looked for her parents on the list of prisoners held in the notorious S-21 prison, where thousands of Cambodians were tortured and killed by the Khmer Rouge. She also talked to any refugees she could find to see if they knew what happened to her parents. All of this was to no avail.

As a refugee, she spent 18 years in exile. She married and started a family while dreaming of returning the country she left behind.

"I had to survive on my own," she said. "Because of a good education I was able to put my life together."

Finally, after several unsuccessful attempts due to passport complications, she returned home in 1989.

"I left as an innocent young woman. Hardly a woman, yet still a young child," she said. "I came back a mother of two."

Event Info

The Connecticut Council of Vital Voices Global Partnership will be screening Redlight, a documentary exposing the global issue of human trafficking on Saturday, Nov. 13 at the Seabury Center, 45 Church Lane, in Westport. A dessert reception will be held at 7:30 p.m. Guests will have an opportunity to meet Mu Sochua and director Guy Jacobson, and purchase the work of Cambodian artisans. The film will be shown at 8 p.m., followed by a question and answer period with Sochua. Tickets for the event are $100 for VIP seating and the screening; $30 for all other seats at the screening; and $15 for students. Tickets are tax-deductible.

On Nov. 14 Redlight will be shown at 4 p.m. at the Ridgefield Playhouse, 80 East Ridge Rd., Ridgefield, followed by a question and answer period with Mu Sochua. There will be an opportunity to meet Mu Sochua and filmmaker Guy Jacobson at a VIP reception beginning at 2:30 p.m. at Lounsbury House, 316 Main Street, in Ridgefield. Tax-deductible tickets for the Ridgefield event are $100 for the VIP reception and the screening; $30 for the screening only; and $15 for students.
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Cambodian monks told to behave during festival

PHNOM PENH — Cambodia's monks have been warned not to mingle with the crowds at a major water festival this year, with any caught looking at girls in short skirts facing a reprimand.

More than two million visitors are expected to flock to the capital for the three-day festival from November 20-22 to enjoy boat races on the Tonle Sap lake, fireworks and parades.

But for the city's monks, this year's event will be a muted affair in light of the new restrictions.

"As we are monks, it is not good to walk among the crowd because we could touch other people," Phnom Penh's chief monk Non Ngeth told AFP.

Buddhist monks are highly revered in Cambodia, and they are not supposed to touch, or even look at, women.

It would "not be suitable" for monks to be seen mingling with festivalgoers along the riverfront, Non Ngeth added, especially with high-ranking officials looking on.

And if any of the monks dared to sneak a peek at girls wearing short skirts or shorts, "they will be corrected", he said.

But the monks won't have to miss out on the festivities altogether.

They will still be allowed to perform ceremonies blessing the wooden boats taking part in the races, Non Ngeth said.

The annual festival, one of Cambodia's largest, marks the reversal of the flow between the Tonle Sap and the Mekong river.
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Cambodia Awaits Fallout of US Midterm Elections

Cambodian political observers say the recent midterm elections in the US that gave control of the House of Representatives to Republicans could have a ripple effect in Cambodia—through foreign policy, human rights and even the economy.

“I want the Republicans to continue the foreign policy they have been doing, which was tough on dictators, no matter where they are, including Cambodia,” said Kem Sokha, president of the minority opposition Human Rights Party. “Once dictators do something wrong, there must be objection, not leniency. In my view, being lenient towards dictators cannot be successful. The Republicans' consistent warnings to dictators are good for the benefit of democratic fighters.”

However, Mu Sochua, a lawmaker for the main opposition Sam Rainsy Party, said the election is not likely to shift US policy, especially following last week's visit of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Still, she said, “the Republicans' position toward the promotion of democracy is sharper than that of the Democrats.”

Under the former administration of George W. Bush, “if they wanted to help change a country, they provided direct support there,” Mu Sochua said. “Whereas Democrats would take an issue into long consideration before sending troops into a country. However, this doesn't affect Cambodia very much because we don't have armed disputes.”

Last week's elections saw Republicans take 239 of 435 House seats, followed by 187 for Democrats, with nine seats still up for grabs as votes are counted. Democrats, the party of President Barrack Obama, retained control of the Senate.

Koy Kuong, a spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said such elections made little difference.

“This is totally internal US politics,” he said.

Cambodia-US relations have warmed in recent years. Cambodia has proven a willing ally in the US campaign against terrorism, and with Clinton's visit signaling renewed US interest in the region.

However, a changed political landscape in the US could impact development and aid here, said Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights.

“If there is a reduction in international assistance, this means that some health or education programs worldwide, or in Cambodia, can be affected, which could be a problem,” he said.

Rong Chhun, head of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions, said he was concerned there may now be less focus on human rights. However, a push for US jobs could be a good thing here, he said.

“If the winning party can create as many jobs as their voters want, Cambodia will benefit from it accordingly, because our big markets for garments and shoes are in the US,” he said.
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Cambodia celebrates 57th anniversary of Independence Day

Cambodia on Tuesday kicked off its three-day celebration of the 57th anniversary of Independence Day in capital Phnom Penh with about 20,000 people from all walks of life attended the ceremony.

King Norodom Sihamoni laid a wreath and ignited the torch inside the Independence Monument to symbolize the country's independence from colonial rule. The torch lit by the King will burn for the duration of three days and be distinguished Thursday afternoon.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, National Assembly President Heng Samrin, First Vice President of Senate Prince Sisowath Chivanmonirak and other government senior officials, as well as diplomatic corps, students, police and military also attended the ceremony held at the Independence Monument.

Nov. 9 marks the special date that all Cambodians celebrate with passion and pride. In 1953, Cambodia gained complete independence from France after it was under the French protectorate for 90 years.

Source: Xinhua
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Sugar Plantation Protesters Gather at Kampong Speu Court

More than 200 villagers engaged in a land dispute with a ruling party senator traveled to the provincial capital of Kampong Speu province on Tuesday, prepared to protest charges being brought against three of their representatives.

The villagers of Om Lieng commune, Thpong district, say they are being pushed from their land by the sugar plantation of Cambodian People's Party Senator Ly Yong Phat. The ongoing dispute has led to a number of violent protests.

Kampong Speu provincial court has summoned three villagers for questioning on Wednesday, as the courts investigate charges that protesters burned down company buildings in March. Villagers who gathered in the town Tuesday say they do not want to see arrests come as a result of the questioning.

The three village representatives—Chin Sarum, 35; Dul Leang, 41; and Sar Than, 36—face charges of incitement, arson and conspiracy for the fire. They spent Tuesday in the office of the rights group Adhoc, as 200 protesters encamped in front of the court. All three said they would go in for questioning on Wednesday.

“I cannot accept the charges against me,” Chin Sarum told VOA Khmer Tuesday. “I will come to the court following with the court’s order. I do not escape the court. [But] I did not incite the villagers to damage. I did not burn down the company’s property. The charges against me are not fair and are completely slanderous.”

Protesters say they will demand the charges be dropped and will demand a thorough investigation of the land dispute, which has pitted the villagers against the Phnom Penh Sugar Industrial Co., Ltd.

“The villagers have gathered to unite their forces to pressure the court not to arrest the three accused,” aid Ouch Leng, a land project officer for Adhoc. “They are not illegal in expressing their demands that the court provide justice to them, because the land dispute has not been resolved, but the courts are charging the villagers one by one.”

Keo Pisey, provincial police chief, said police are watching the protesters and will allow will allow them to gather on Wednesday.
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