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Friday, July 09, 2010

Cambodian Activist Chooses Jail in Standoff with Prime Minister

To be a critic of the Cambodian government is difficult and, sometimes, dangerous work. But to be a female activist is even more challenging in the male-dominated society. Mu Sochua, an opposition party parliamentarian, is one of the country’s most powerful women. She is now counting down the days until her arrest on charges of defaming Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Strong legs

It all started when Mu Sochua sued the prime minister for defamation. Last year, Mr. Hun Sen called Mu Sochua “cheung klang,” which means strong legs. Mu Sochua says “cheung klang” was used in a disparaging way to disrespect her gender and intimidate the opposition. She sued him for the equivalent of 12 cents in what she called a symbolic protest. The prime minister responded with his own defamation suit, alleging that her lawsuit unfairly disparaged him.

Cambodia’s courts struck down Mu Sochua’s case but upheld the prime minister’s. She has until July 15th to pay about $4,000 in fines. But she says she would rather go to prison.

“It is my conscience that tells me I have not committed any crime. It is my conscience that tells me that we have to stop living in fear, and fear of one man who has ruled Cambodia for over 30 years,” Mu Sochua says. “And for me, it’s a gender issue as well. Because if I allow it to happen, if I pay the fine, what does it mean to the value of women who represent more than half of the people of Cambodia?”

Women's rights

Mu Sochua was not always a member of the opposition. From 1998 to 2004, she served in the government as the minister of women’s affairs. Since then, many more women have joined the government. Mu Sochua says the social image of women has improved somewhat, but that the changes have not been institutionalized.

“The women who are elected from the ruling party, the party of the prime minister, unfortunately do not serve their constituency because they serve their party first,” she says. “Which means that they don’t challenge, they don’t monitor the implementation of the laws.”

Mu Sochua says she is unwilling to stay silent while Prime Minister Hun Sen intimidates the Cambodian people, including those in his own party.

“It’s not about me and the prime minister,” Mu Sochua says. “It is about the opposition party making all its efforts to fight a prime minister who acts as a dictator. And it is about time to make a move for change.”


Authorities have not said how long Mu Sochua would spend in prison if arrested. She says she is mentally preparing to be behind bars for six months. Her case is not unprecedented. In 2005, several human rights activists were also jailed for defamation but released in less than a month largely because of international pressure.

The world may be watching Mu Sochua’s case, as well. The Cambodian parliamentarian is a Nobel Peace Prize nominee and a U.S. citizen. But she says she is not using her status to try to avoid arrest. She says if going to prison will help illuminate Cambodia’s problems, then she is willing to do whatever it takes.

Western nations often raise concerns about democracy and human rights in Cambodia, but critics say they do not do enough to hold the Hun Sen government accountable. In June, foreign donors awarded Cambodia more than $1 billion in development aid on the same day the Supreme Court upheld the prime minister’s case against Mu Sochua.
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‘Unprecedented’ Cambodia, US Ties

King Norodom Sihamoni of Cambodia recieved paper from newly appointed US Ambassador Carol Rodly

Cambodia and the US are experiencing their strongest ties in 60 years, according to historians and other experts, in what has been a relationship with a lot of ups and downs.

Diplomatic ties were cut twice, in 1965 and 1975, and the countries were torn apart by the Cold War. Relations were strained further after the Cambodian People’s Party seized power in fighting in 1997. And the two countries occasionally clash on issues of human rights and democracy.

Despite all this, ties are growing.

“From economic growth projects to cultural exchange programs to military cooperation, the level of substantive collaboration is unprecedented,” Kenneth Foster, a spokesman for the US Embassy in Phnom Penh, told VOA Khmer. “In no time over the last 60 years have our two countries coordinated on a daily basis as much as we do now.”

Kenton Clymer, a historian of Cambodia-US relations, said Cambodia’s Cold War position and the US’s inability to “forge a policy” damaged the relationship. He suggested a non-ideological path of diplomacy to ensure a long-term relationship.

“It it is hard to predict the issues that will arise in the next, say, 60 years will be,” he said in a phone interview. “All I can say is that as long as both sides follow an intelligent and thoughtful diplomacy, that will prevent or at least mitigate problems that will arise.”

The US is now one of the biggest donors to Cambodia, providing development assistance topping $40 million per year. And unlike aid in the 1970s, which went to war-fighting, this aid is for development.

“Nowadays, cooperation between our two countries focuses on economic development, improving democracy, human rights [and] counterterrorism and fighting drugs and human trafficking,” Cambodia’s ambassador to the US, Hem Heng, told VOA Khmer in a recent interview.

Still, there are areas where Cambodia does not meet US expectations.

“Issues like human rights, democracy, and corruption are not properly addressed,” said Kem Sokha, president of the opposition Human Rights Party. “Whenever the US raises these issues, the government of Cambodia always objects. There are still disagreements over these big issues.”

Kem Sokha said Cambodia’s leaders often talk about US invasion and past mistakes, “but never talk about those of China.”

“It is obvious that current leaders lean to another side that is still contrary to the US stance,” he added.

The most recent strain came in December 2009, when Cambodia sent 20 Uighur Muslim asylum seekers back to China, in what some groups said was a violation of international obligations.

The US suspended a military aid package as a result, but there has been little other public fallout. China followed with a military aid package of its own.

That development disappointed some.

“It would be good if Cambodia could learn from a rich and democratic country, not a communist one,” said Yap Kimtung, president of the group Cambodia-Americans for Human Rights and Democracy.

However, it has not derailed the relationship, and a stream of celebrations are planned as July continues.

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Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam To Jointly Develop Triangle Area

PHNOM PENH, July 9 (Bernama) -- Parliaments of Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam have signed an approval for the three countries to jointly develop a triangle area, China's Xinhua news agency reported Friday.

Citing the joint statement, the agreement allows of having a joint-controlled border point as well as setting up of a website with English language as an international language and the three nations' national languages.

The joint statement was released on Friday after the two-day parliaments meeting, which kicked off on July 7 in Kratie province in Cambodia.

The meeting also discussed the roles of parliaments on how to help promote triangle development plan among the three countries.

The triangle development area covers four provinces in Cambodia: Rattanakiri, Stung Treng, Mondulkiri and Kratie, with three provinces in Laos and four provinces in Vietnam.

It is the annual meeting and Vietnam hosted the meeting last year.

In 2002, leaders of the three countries agreed to boost for economic benefit, promoting tourism, exchanging culture, as well as to well cooperate in social order, security and to reduce poverty.

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