Alumni & Friends
Taking a Stand
Photo by Chris Wright.
Mu Sochua (B.A., '79), the opposition parliamentarian and human rights activist from Cambodia, is worried. She has gone through dust-ups with the ruling party before but never anything like this.
At stake, this time, are not only her seat in Parliament but her freedom.
" I don't know if, inside me, I am really strong enough to go to jail," she says on the phone from her home in southern Cambodia.
Mu (her last name) is one of Cambodia's most outspoken and dogged defenders of democracy and human rights. Her efforts against sex trafficking won her a Human Rights Global Leadership Award from Vital Voices Global Partnership, whose honorary chairwoman, then-U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton, handed Mu the prize in 2005.
Mu's most recent troubles began in April, when Prime Minister Hun Sen, without mentioning her by name, made public statements that Mu said were as preposterous as they were humiliating. He said that a woman, who, by his description could only be Mu, had rushed to embrace an army officer, then accused him of unbuttoning her blouse.
Shocked and offended, Mu sued the prime minister for defamation. What in fact had happened, Mu says, was that an officer, during an outdoor political event, had attempted to block Mu from taking a photograph. A scuffle ensued, during which her blouse came unbuttoned.
Taking on the prime minister in Cambodia is risky. The government, according to the United Nations human rights office in Cambodia, has, with alarming frequency, used the courts to silence political enemies. Mu should know. Hun Sen responded to Mu's lawsuit by countersuing, an act that Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, called "yet another blatant attempt to silence the political opposition." It came as little surprise to Mu when a municipal court upheld the prime minister's case but dismissed hers, and fined the parliamentarian the equivalent of U.S. $4,100.
Mu is adamant that she will not pay the fine, even though her refusal to do so means she would lose her parliamentary seat and likely go to jail, perhaps for as long as six months. "I don't want to be a hero," she says, "but I am not going to pay the fine because that would mean admitting guilt, and what would that mean for the poor who are fighting for justice every day in Cambodia?"
As the Vietnam War spilled into Cambodia in the early 1970s, Mu, then age 18, fled her country, first for France and later the United States. She followed her brother, Songly, to San Francisco State, where she majored in psychology. As a refugee, Mu struggled with feelings of dislocation and loneliness. Her psychology studies helped her cope. "I was most interested in behavioral psychology, as I had a very good teacher," she said. "That first exposure to psychology enabled me later on to deal with my inner self, which was very much seeking an anchor."
Mu went on to a master's degree in social work at University of California, Berkeley before she returned to Cambodia and entered public service, first as a minister of women's and veterans' affair and later an elected member of Parliament.
Today, the human rights situation in Cambodia is dire, Mu says. The United States, she says, can help by exerting pressure on the Cambodian government and ruling party to shore up democratic practices and institutions. During a recent speaking tour, Mu met with Secretary of State Clinton and asked that a high-level delegation be sent to Cambodia. So far, she has received no response, but she hasn't given up. Mu doesn't shrink from a fight.
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