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Saturday, April 03, 2010

From California to Cambodia, Fighting for Women


MAK PRAING, Cambodia

IT was at Berkeley in the 1970s that Mu Sochua, a shy teenager fleeing a war in Cambodia, learned the thrill of speaking her mind.

The daughter of a well-to-do merchant in Phnom Penh, she had been sent to the West at the age of 18 to study and to be safe from the fighting that later brought the brutal Khmer Rouge regime to power.

“When I hit San Francisco I knew that was my city,” said Ms. Mu Sochua, who is now 55. “I began to shine. I let my hair grow. I looked like a hippie.” She learned English, she said, by listening to the Beatles.

She earned a master’s degree in social work from Berkeley and transformed herself enthusiastically from a demure traditional Cambodian woman to one who knew her rights and was not shy about demanding them.

That is her problem today as the most prominent female member of Parliament, a leader of the country’s struggling political opposition and a campaigner for women’s rights in a society where women are still expected to walk and speak with a becoming deference.

“I have to be careful not to push things too far,” she said in a recent interview on the campaign trail here in southern Cambodia. “I have to be very, very careful about what I bring from the West, to promote women’s rights within the context of a society that is led by men,” she said.

“In the Cambodian context, it’s women’s lib. It’s feminism. It’s challenging the culture, challenging the men.”

She has this in mind as she campaigns through the villages of Kandal Province, a woman with power but a woman nonetheless. “I walk into a cafe and I have to think twice, how to be polite to the men,” she said. “I have to ask if I can enter. This is their turf.”

Ms. Mu Sochua is a member of a new generation of female leaders who are working their way into the political systems of countries across Asia and elsewhere, from local councils to national assemblies and cabinet positions.

A former minister of women’s affairs, she did as much as anybody to put women’s issues on the agenda of a nation emerging in the 1990s from decades of war and mass killings.

During six years as minister, Ms. Mu Sochua campaigned against child abuse, marital rape, violence against women, human trafficking and the exploitation of female workers. She helped draft the country’s Prevention of Domestic Violence law.

In part because of her work, she said, “People are aware about gender. It’s a new Cambodian word: ‘gen-de.’ People are aware that women have rights.”

But she lost her public platform in 2004 when she broke with the government and joined the opposition Sam Rainsy Party, and she is finding it as difficult now to promote her ideas as to gain attention as a candidate.

LIKE dissidents and opposition figures in many countries, she has found herself with a new burden, battling for her own rights. As she has risen in prominence, her political stands have become more of a political liability than her gender.

Most recently, she has been caught in a bizarre tit-for-tat exchange of defamation suits with the country’s domineering prime minister, Hun Sen, in which, to nobody’s surprise, she was the loser.

It started last April here in Kampot Province when Mr. Hun Sen referred to her with the phrase “cheung klang,” or “strong legs,” an insulting term for a woman in Cambodia.

She sued him for defamation; he stripped her of her parliamentary immunity and sued her back. Her suit was dismissed in the politically docile courts. On Aug. 4 she was convicted of defaming the prime minister and fined about $4,000, which she has refused to pay.

“Now I live with the uncertainty about whether I’m going to go to jail,” she said. “I’m not going to pay the fine. Paying the fine is saying to all Cambodian women, ‘What are you worth? A man can call you anything he wants and there is nothing you can do.’ ”

Ms. Mu Sochua was still in California when the Khmer Rouge seized power in Cambodia in 1975 and began mass killings that would take 1.7 million lives over the next four years.

“We were waiting, waiting, waiting to hear from our parents,” she said. “They told us they were on the last plane to Paris. They never made it.”

She headed for the Thai border, where refugees were fleeing by the tens of thousands, and it was there that she met her future husband, an American, when both were working in the refugee camps. They have lived together in Cambodia since 1989, where he works for the United Nations, and have three grown children living in the United States and Britain.

Ms. Mu Sochua makes frequent trips into the countryside around their villa, introducing herself to constituents who may never have seen her face. The next parliamentary election is still three years away, but she is already campaigning because she is almost entirely excluded from government-controlled newspapers and television.

She paused politely the other day at the stoop of a small open-fronted noodle shop in this riverside village, where men sat in the midday heat on red plastic chairs. She let her male assistants enter first.

She had succeeded in halting a sand-dredging project that was eroding riverbanks here, and she wanted the men to know that she had been working on their behalf. “I came here to inform you that you got a result from the government,” she told the men, showing them a legal document. “I want to inform you that you have a voice. If you see something wrong, you can stand up and speak about it.”

Asked afterward what it was like to have a woman fighting his battles, Mol Sa, 37, a fisherman, said, “She speaks up for us, so I don’t think she’s any different from a man. Maybe a different lady couldn’t do it, but she can do it because she is strong and not afraid.”

FEAR was a theme as Ms. Mu Sochua moved through the countryside here.

At another village where cracks were appearing in the sandy embankment, a widow named Pal Nas, 78, said the big dredging boats had scared her.

“I’m afraid that if I speak out they will come after me,” she said. “In the Khmer Rouge time they killed all the men. When night comes I don’t have a man to protect me. It’s more difficult if you are a woman alone.”

Mr. Hun Sen’s ruling party holds power through most of rural Cambodia, and Ms. Mu Sochua said party agents kept an eye on her as she campaigned. At one point a man on a motorbike took photographs of her and her companions with a mobile telephone, then drove away.

Later, as the sun began to set, a farmer greeted her warmly, calling out to his wife and climbing a tree to pick ripe guavas for her.

“I voted for you,” he said as he handed her the fruit. “But don’t tell anyone.”
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Experts Say Cooperation Needed on Mekong River Resources

The Mekong River runs more than 4,000 kilometers through six countries, vital to large populations for farming, fishing, drinking water, industry and power generation

Experts meeting to discuss Mekong River resources have urged countries along the Southeast Asian river to improve cooperation in developing hydropower. Delegates also urged China to share more information about its dam building on the Mekong.

After two days of discussions, some 200 experts on water, environmental protection, and finance concluded there is not enough cooperation on developing the Mekong River's resources.

They urged Mekong countries to find a balanced approach to harness the river's economic benefits such as hydropower without causing too much social and environmental damage.

Ian Matthews, who is with the ANZ Bank in Singapore, says international standards for environmental protection are not being met on Mekong dam projects when international banks are not involved.

"As a country, as a government, there's a clear desire to have hydropower finance because it is an increasingly valuable resource in places like Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. If the international bank is not going to finance it, and they're not going to apply World Bank standards, IFC standards, to these projects, what you get are banks coming in who have much lower standards. Now, that will lead to much greater degradation of the environment, it will lead to the exclusion of other stakeholders," said Matthews.

China is the only country with hydropower dams on the Mekong and along with Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand is also planning to build more.

Until recently China provided very little information from its dams to its downstream neighbors.
And when the river flooded in 2008 and this year dropped to a 50-year low, many along the Mekong blamed China.

However, the Mekong River Commission, the organization coordinating cooperation on the river, says drought was the real culprit.

But the MRC says dams on the Mekong are likely to have adverse effects on fish migration and sediment flows.

Pham Thi Thanh Hang is coordinator of the MRC's Basin Development Program. She noted China was giving more data on its dams but said even more was needed.

"We have been benefiting from the sharing of informations, from the sharing of the borders used, with our Chinese colleagues, and comparing the model results. But, we will also benefit if further, extensive information will be shared. For example, on the operations of the dams. So that the countries down here can really plan and work according to a good understanding of what are the opportunities and risks," she said.

MRC member countries are Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam.

Their prime ministers are to meet Monday to discuss for the first time efforts to improve transparency and cooperation on the river.

They will be joined by dialogue partners from upstream countries Burma and China.
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