By: Dustin Roasa for The New Republic
On a Saturday morning in July, Cambodian opposition politician Mu Sochua traveled to the dusty, sun-baked suburbs of Phnom Penh for a rally. Close to 100 Cambodians—most of them poor women sitting on plastic chairs squeezed into the ground-floor room of a supporter’s house—stood and applauded when she arrived. Wearing a traditional sarong, with her silver-streaked brown hair tied back, the American-educated parliamentarian took a microphone and began to speak. “People are in the mood for change. The government is afraid of the power of the opposition,” she said, her rising voice punctuated by the chants of Buddhist monks wafting in from a nearby temple. A supporter dimmed the lights, and Mu Sochua, who represents the southern Kampot Province, lit a slender white candle, the symbol of her political party. She then led the room in a stirring rendition of the patriotic song “We Are Khmer.”
The next general election in Cambodia is not until 2013, so Mu Sochua wasn’t trying to convince people to go to the polls. But there was still pressing political business to attend to: She had recently been the target of a defamation lawsuit, surreal even by Cambodia’s authoritarian standards. In April 2009, Prime Minister Hun Sen used the epithet “strong legs,” a colloquialism for a prostitute, to describe Mu Sochua in a speech. She sued him for defamation, and Hun Sen countersued—the logic being that accusing the prime minister of defamation is itself an act of defamation. Predictably, the courts, which are stocked with judges loyal to Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), threw out the case against the prime minister, found Mu Sochua guilty, and fined her. She refused to pay the fine, even when the courts threatened to throw her in jail.
Taking advantage of a seemingly bad situation, Mu Sochua used rallies, like the one I attended, to draw support for both her legal dilemma and her broader goal of democratic reform. And, in late July, as criticism from human rights groups in Cambodia and abroad mounted, the government backed down and ordered her fine deducted from Mu Sochua’s parliamentary wages. She was spared from prison—but the damage, at least to the government, had already been done.
Using the defamation suit as a springboard, Mu Sochua had positioned herself almost overnight as the leading opposition figure in Cambodia. Her story garnered significant attention from both the local and international press, the U.S. Congress and the European Parliament have highlighted her case, and many Cambodians now see her as the natural successor to Sam Rainsy, the longtime opposition leader who was forced into exile following his own court convictions for criticizing the government. “Before the defamation case, she was not very well-known by the Cambodian public, but this case has raised her profile significantly,” says human rights activist Ou Virak. “She’s the only woman who’s willing to stand up to Hun Sen.”