copyright Lucia De Giovanni

copyright Lucia De Giovanni

In Cambodia major battles are going on for power and control of resources- land, timber, fisheries, and oil- whose outcome could well shape the lives of the 14 million Cambodians. A corrupt elite is taking over the nation’s emerging export sectors, while international donors turn a blind eye. With the change of administration, the position the US takes on these issues is seen as key by many Cambodians.

The Indypendent interviewed a leading opposition politician and principal founder of the women's movement in Cambodia, Ms. Sochua Mu, during her recent visit to the U.S. Ms. Sochua was visiting the US to lobby the incoming administration to take a firmer line on supporting democracy and human rights in Cambodia. During her visit she met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Sochua described the purpose of her meeting: “I came because I needed to see the people in the new administration to urge them to re-assess US foreign policy. Cambodia is a democracy on paper but in reality a dictatorship. Our party activists are murdered because they fight for justice - life is still cheap in Cambodia. Human trafficking, drug trafficking, land grabbing and forced evictions are all carried out under the nose of the government. As a member of Cambodia’s parliament I met with the US Secretary of State and asked her to send a delegation to Cambodia to hear what the people have to say. I hope that the US will demand more from the Cambodian government in terms of human rights and respect for its people. They have already suffered more than enough”.

Sochua is critical of US aid that focuses mainly on military and security, a leftover from the Bush administration: “the US must change this policy that focuses on the use of the military to defend borders. The new administration must not fall into the same trap” she says. “The international community provides over 500 million dollars in development aid annually to Cambodia in part to reform the police and the judiciary. However, the international donor community is reluctant to criticize the government for its poor performance on human rights, preferring to practice closed-door diplomacy. This practice has yielded next to no reforms and donors continue to be satisfied with token actions taken by the government to give a façade to democracy and social justice.”

Sochua hopes to lobby the Obama administration to take a firmer stance on supporting democracy and human rights, as well as redirect U.S. aid that she says the Bush administration focused on military and security. According to U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the United States provided Cambodia $54 million in 2008 and $700 million total since USAID opened an office in the country in 1992.

Sochua regularly stands up to Cambodia’s dictatorial Prime Minister for the past 15 years, Hun Sen, in a political climate that often sees “disappearances” of persons the government finds troublesome. Forced to flee for her life at 18 in the early 1970s as the Vietnam war spilled over into Cambodia, she said goodbye to her parents, trapped in the country as it fell under the command of the Khmer Rouge. They vanished during the genocide that would claim the lives of roughly one quarter of Cambodia's population. Sochua remained in exile for the next 18 years. She won a scholarship to Berkeley and worked as a counselor and translator for the Cambodian refugees that began to trickle over. She eventually became a US citizen. A few years later she went back to Asia to organize schooling for Cambodian children and social services for women in the refugee camps set up by the UN on the border between Thailand and Cambodia, until she was able to enter Cambodia in 1989. Says Sochua “what I saw when I returned home was a country in ruins. I would take my young children on walks in streets where I learned to bike, where I wandered with my childhood friends, where I went to school, all the years of joy, of happiness, of deep feelings of comfort came back to me. But I was no longer a child. I came back to help rebuild a nation. The war and genocide also changed my people. They have lost their sense of trust for each other, they have become hard inside and desperate for just daily survival.”

Back in Cambodia Sochua started the first women’s organization there to help poor urban women earn a better living. The group, Khemara, campaigned to include women’s rights and concerns into the country’s new constitution, drafted in 1993, and became involved in efforts to rescue girls caught in Cambodia’s thriving sex trade. In 1998 Sochua ran for election and won a seat in parliament. She became the first woman to take over the Women’s Affairs Ministry that hitherto had been run by a man. In a country that considers women inferior to men, Sochua mobilized 25,000 women candidates to run for commune elections in 2002, the first of their kind in the history of Cambodia, with over 900 women elected. She negotiated an agreement with Thailand allowing Cambodian women trafficked as sex workers to return to their home country instead of being jailed. She pioneered the use of TV commercials to spread the word about trafficking to vulnerable populations. Her work in Cambodia also supports campaigns with men to end domestic violence and the spread of HIV/Aids; strengthening rights of female entrepreneurs and enforcement of labor laws that provide fair wages and safe working conditions for female workers; and development of communities for squatters with schools, health centers, sanitation, and employment. In 2005 she was nominated for a Nobel Prize for her work against sex trafficking of women.

When it became clear that retaining her high position in the government would require playing a part in corruption, Sochua Mu renounced the leadership and joined the primary opposition party in parliament, to focus on rebuilding Cambodia from the bottom up. At times, she admits, the burden on her family life is heavy. Last week Sochua announced that she is considering legal action in Cambodia’s courts against the Prime Minister for allegedly using derogatory and threatening language against her in a speech he made last month during a visit to Kampot province in SW Cambodia, the parliamentary district represented by Mu Sochua. The speech, which was widely reported on Cambodian TV and other media, warned villagers not to seek help from members of the opposition party but to approach the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, and allegedly referred to Ms. Sochua using a khmer term ‘cheung kland,’ meaning approximately a gangster or unruly person and considered especially insulting by Cambodians when applied to a woman. Says Ms Sochua “This is very defamatory and I need to clear my case or I will not be able to properly serve or serve with dignity my function as MP in Kampot. This is inviting other men to abuse women whenever they want”.

This is the latest episode in a series of public disagreements in which Ms. Sochua, a former Minister for Women’s Affairs, has accused the Prime Minister of not doing enough to prevent people in her district from suffering loss of property and livelihoods at the hands of powerful investors, often with the backing of local authorities and the military.

Most Cambodians still depend on small-scale agriculture, forest exploitation and fishing for their livelihoods but, because of the country’s turbulent recent history, land ownership is generally undocumented and often contested. As a result, it is easy for the powerful to acquire land and hand it over to investors for commercial and tourism development. Says Sochua “The military is involved in almost all cases of land grabbing and use of force to bulldoze farmers' lands, to protect private companies when there is burning of communities for land grabbings. Look at the involvement of the military in the oil extractions while corrupt and non-transparent deals are made by the heads of the government and the military. It is now common practice for powerful corporations and government officials to utilize armed forces to push citizens off their rightfully and legally held land. These evictions are often violent, with soldiers wielding guns, tear gas and tazers and burning houses to the ground, while citizens are beaten, maimed and arrested. Over 150,000 Cambodians were victims of forced evictions and land grabbing in 2007 alone.”

In the last ten years vast tracts of forest and farmland have been acquired by the government and military and turned over to large corporations. Studies have estimated that such concessions cover as much as one-third of the entire area of Cambodia. In one recent case, houses in a village in her district in Kampot province were burned down and the owners attacked by persons not yet identified as part of an apparent effort to evict them. Ms. Sochua told the Indypendent “The villagers had their homes burned down and five were severely injured. The land they lived on for over ten years is now being taken away by the army and will likely be given as a concession to some companies under the pretext of development. We are talking about thousands of hectares of land. I have been there three times and pressed the local authorities to protect the villagers and bring the land grabbers to justice. I have formally requested the Prime Minister to help return the villagers to their land and rebuild their houses but have never even received a reply”.

Cambodia's economy relies on three principal sources of income: textiles, tourism, and agriculture. It is one of Asia's most liberal regimes for foreign investors. Its reliance on textiles is so extreme that Cambodia has become beholden to U.S. retailers. The United States is the largest overseas market for Cambodian goods. As former U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia Mussomeli put it, "Levi Strauss or the Gap could destroy this country on a whim."

Chevron discovered oil offshore several years ago. The company is still determining the size of the field, but the Cambodian government says it hopes to begin pumping oil in 2011. The IMF estimated last year that the country could earn as much as $1.7 billion from oil within ten years of the date pumping begins.

While this could mean more income for a country that relies on donors for about half of its annual budget, NGO’s worry that it won’t be subject to the oversight, however limited, that the foreign aid brings with it. Other NGO’s argue that the best route is to declare a moratorium on aid until there's basic governance and a transparency framework in place. Cambodia is ranked third in the region for corruption levels.

When asked if she was hopeful about the situation in Cambodia improving, Sochua’s response was clear: “No, not until there is a change of regime. That can only happen when we have a real election that is free and fair. The West should insist on that, otherwise all the aid they have poured into Cambodia will not work”.