Sunday, September 20, 2009

Nobel Peace Prize nominee Mu Sochua visits Sacramento

Friday, September 18, 2009

Mu Sochua had a request of her audience: "I ask you to please monitor [my] case, because it's very very likely that I will go to jail," the native Cambodian said in a speech in Sacramento.

The social worker and women's rights and democracy activist was a Nobel Peace Prize nominee in 2005.

About 40 people gathered Monday at noon in a conference room at the U.C. Center in Sacramento to hear Sochua speak. In the speech, presented by the World Affaris Council, she spoke about ending the sex trafficking of women and children, opposing land grabs and reforming the corrupt Cambodian court system.

Sochua came to Northern California in 1973. She earned a degree in psychology from San Francisco State and a master's in social work from the University of California at Berkeley in 1981. Before she could return to Cambodia, Sochua learned that her parents had been killed by the Khmer Rouge, the regime responsible for the deaths of more than a million Cambodians.

Sochua returned to Cambodia after 18 years of exile to help the government rebuild after the Khmer Rouge lost power. She is an outspoken member of Parliament, and spoke about her recent defamation lawsuit against Prime Minister Hun Sen of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).

"He said that I go around, grab men and take off my shirt," Sochua said. It's an insult that usually would not be challenged by a woman in a society rife with gender inequality, she explained, but added "that cannot be tolerated. The issue here is dignity."

"That situation was reverse, actually," Sochua said. "An official in the military who was campaigning for the ruling party assaulted me at the marketplace and my shirt came undone."

But before the prime minister could be brought to trial, he countersued Sochua's lawyer. "The Cambodian Bar Association put so much pressure on my lawyer that he would have been disbarred," Sochua said. "Then he left me without defense, apologized to the prime minister and joined the prime minister's party."

So Sochua defended herself in court.

In what she called a show trial in which no investigation was conducted, Sochua was found guilty of "speaking out," "speaking on behalf of women," "spreading disinformation" and "suing [the prime minister]," she said. After not paying a $4,000 fine and being stripped of her legislative immunity, Sochua, a member of Sam Rainsy, the leading opposition party, could face life imprisonment when she returns to Cambodia.

"That's why I'm going from place to place, talking to people like you," she said. In a recent meeting with Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, Sochua urged the United States to send a high level delegation to assess civil rights issues in Cambodia.

"If I were imprisoned, the situation would bring more attention to donors and the world community," Sochua said. "That is the symbol for struggle for justice, it will speak loud[est]."

Hers is not a poor country, Sochua said, citing Cambodia's natural resources and more than $1 billion of foreign aid per year. She pointed out that $53 million of that money comes from the United States. "It's just badly managed, losing about $500 million a year to corruption and a lack of political will."

Moderator Robert Cassinelli, on the board of the World Affairs Council, spoke of the importance of Sochua's speech. "I would like to thank Mu Sochua for illuminating something which is a [part of the] human condition: human rights and gender issues," he said.

A young Cambodian American asked what Cambodians in the United States can do to help reform the Cambodian justice system.

"I hope that you will take some action, because you can," Sochua said. "I would like you to go and write a letter to your legislators and ask your government, 'What are you doing in Cambodia?' "

Audience member Samedi Thach called for action. "I hope everybody listens to her and writes the letter she asks for and keeps tabs on her to make sure that she doesn't disappear and what she's fighting for doesn't go away.

"Instead of staying here and living the American Dream, like a lot of Cambodians, she's actually trying to make changes in Cambodia," added Thach, a 24-year-old Cambodian American living in Sacramento. "Knowing that she's going to go back to face 20-to-life, or assassination, it makes her message more powerful: She's willing to go back and be a martyr for the cause that she believes in."

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