Cambodian politician works from ground up

Almost 40 years after she fled her native country under the threat of war, activist and politician Mu Sochua is fighting her own battle for women’s rights in Cambodia.

At the Pierson College master’s house Wednesday afternoon, Mu Sochua — a member of the Cambodian parliament and former Minister of Women’s and Veterans’ Affairs in the Cambodian prime minister’s cabinet — promoted tolerance and grassroots activism to an audience of about 15. Sochua said her aim was to educate students and faculty about her work to create a corruption-free government which represents women as fairly as men.

“I want to make my party committed to putting women on the ballot,” she said. “We want to make people ask all of the political parties, ‘Do you have women candidates?’”

Mu Sochua began by discussing how she came to be involved in Cambodian politics. When she was 18, Mu Sochua left Cambodia for France to avoid the Vietnam War, which was threatening to spill into Cambodia. Soon after, in 1975, the communist Khmer Rouge regime took control of the nation. Mu Sochua moved to America and spent several years helping Cambodian refugees integrate into American society, but returned to her home country in 1989 and ran for elected office. In 1998, she finally won a seat in the Cambodian national assembly.

“Whatever topic fell into my legislation, I went into it fully,” she said. “I disguised myself as a sex slave, I marched with workers. I needed to know this in order to draft a bill.”

Mu Sochua is a prominent advocate for placing female members in Parliament. Her strategy, she said, is to identify intelligent and outspoken women while on her own campaign trail. Then, she trains these women to become legitimate candidates and sends them back to their rural villages to communicate with their fellow citizens and gather enough support to be elected.

Domestic politics can only go so far in the fight against corruption, Mu Sochua said. To this end, Mu Sochua presented a four-point plan to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton LAW ’73 during her visit to Cambodia last week that would engage the United States in Cambodian government reform. Under the plan, the United States would protect Mu Sochua’s opposition party by monitoring the security of its members, funding judicial reform, ensuring free and fair elections and supporting civil society programs.

Sochua believes that this plan would combat corruption and give citizens the chance to effectively participate in a representative government.

“If there is more transparency and visibility, there is less corruption,” Mu Sochua said. “In Cambodian, the word ‘corruption’ means ‘broken and rotten to the core.’”

“If we all speak against one thing we know is bad, then we will have the courage to speak,” she added.

Pierson College Master Harvey Goldblatt GRD ’77 said he enjoyed the talk, adding that he was greatly concerned with human rights in Cambodia as a youth growing up in the 1970s. He also said he found her grassroots approach to reform appealing.

“What I particularly liked was that she wasn’t discussing lofty ideals, but rather dealing with people in the villages and combating their distrust of government,” he said.

Daryl Hok ’14 and Martin Shapiro ’14, both children of first generation Cambodian immigrants, said they appreciated the lecture because of its hopeful message.

“This was a different view that wasn’t as well known as the negative aspects of Cambodian government,” Hok said. “It was also really enlightening because she has been there, fighting a war against corruption.”

The discussion was sponsored by Vital Voices, a non-governmental organization based in Washington, D.C.

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