04.16.09

Cambodia's New War

The Nobel-nominated opposition leader of Southeast Asia’s saddest, bloodiest country has brought a message for Hillary Clinton: Our democracy needs your help.

Cambodia is at war again. This time, the battles surround who will control resources—land, timber, fisheries, oil—with a corrupt elite taking over the nation’s emerging export economy, while international donors turn a blind eye and 14 million Cambodians suffer.

“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.”

A new American president, many Cambodians hope, might change all that. Sochua Mu, an opposition leader and founder of the women's movement in Cambodia, recently returned to the U.S., lobbying Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to take a firmer line on democracy and human rights in her long-suffering country. “I needed to see the people in the new administration to urge them to re-assess U.S. foreign policy,” says Sochua in an interview with The Daily Beast. “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.”

Sochua Mu’s story is uniquely Cambodian. Forced to flee for her life at 18 in the early 1970s as the Vietnam War spilled over the border, she left behind her parents, who vanished, as did one-quarter of the country’s population during the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror. Sochua wound up in America, won a scholarship to the University of California at Berkeley, and worked as a counselor and translator for the Cambodian refugees who began to trickle over. She eventually became a U.S. citizen.

During the 1980s, she returned to Southeast Asia, organizing schooling for children and social services for women in the refugee camps set up by the U.N. on the border between Thailand and Cambodia. In 1989, she was finally allowed to re-enter her homeland, “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,” she says. “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.”

Sochua started the first women’s organization in Cambodia, Khemera, designed to help poor urban women earn a better living. She 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, taking over the women’s affairs ministry, which had previously been run by men. In a country that considers women inferior, Sochua mobilized 25,000 female candidates to run for commune elections in 2002. It was a first for Cambodia, and 900 of them were elected.

She negotiated an agreement with Thailand that allowed 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 to end domestic violence and the spread of HIV/AIDS, as well as women’s workplace conditions. In 2005, she was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for her work against sex trafficking of women.

Her position in high government put her in direct conflict with Cambodia’s long-ruling prime minister, Hun Sen. Rather than participate in the corruption she saw around her, Sochua Mu renounced the leadership and joined the primary opposition party in parliament. Last week, Sochua announced that she is considering legal action against the prime minister for allegedly using derogatory and threatening language against her in a speech he made last month during a visit to her parliamentary district. The speech, 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 Sochua using a Khmer term cheung kland—a gangster or unruly person, which has an especially insulting connation for women.

Her most frequent public disagreement with Hun Sen surrounds what she sees as a failure 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 to develop. More than 150,000 Cambodians, according to Sochua, were victims of forced evictions and land-grabbing in 2007 alone. Studies have estimated that such concessions cover as much as one-third of the entire area of Cambodia.

“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,” says Sochua. “These evictions are often violent, with soldiers wielding guns, tear gas and Tasers and burning houses to the ground, while citizens are beaten, maimed and arrested.”

Cambodia's economy relies on three principal sources of income: tourism, agriculture, and textiles. The United States is the largest overseas market for the latter. As former U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia Joseph Mussomeli put it, "Levi Strauss or the Gap could destroy this country on a whim."

George W. Bush's policy, as Sochua saw it, focused on military and security-centered aid. According to the U.S. Agency for International Development, the U.S. provided Cambodia $54 million last year and $700 million total since the agency opened an office in the country in 1992. Other international donors, meanwhile, have done little better in holding the Cambodian government accountable on human rights, preferring “closed-door diplomacy,” as she calls it, to public criticism. “This practice has yielded next to no reforms,” she says, “and donors continue to be satisfied with token actions taken by the government to give a façade to democracy and social justice.”

Even that oversight is at risk. Chevron discovered oil offshore several years ago, and 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 10 years of the date that pumping begins—a big deal for this poor country, which relies on donors for half of its annual budget, but also more money that won’t carry any accountability.

Some aid agencies have called for a moratorium on aid until basic governance and transparency frameworks are in place. Sochua says that won’t happen until there’s a new regime. “That can only happen when we have a real election that is free and fair,” she says. “The West should insist on that, otherwise all the aid they have poured into Cambodia will not work”.

Katrin Redfern is a writer and editor at The Indypendent in New York City.