Women

08.14.13

The Women of the Cambodian Spring

During the country’s most recent election, opposition parliamentarian Mu Sochua saw her brave countrywomen standing up to corruption and demanding change.

After intense campaigning throughout Cambodia that took more than 12 months—from the mountains of Mondulkiri to the former stronghold of the Khmer Rouge in Samlot—the 2013 general election produced the result we’d all been aiming for: P’Dho, Chneas. Change, We Can.

Against all odds, change was delivered to the people when over 6 million voters—more than half of whom were women under 30—went to the polls July 28, and the united opposition, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), won the trust of the people. We had no luxury cars. We had no access to state media. The international community did not give us the slightest chance, but we maintained the same strong determination that Cambodia needed a new beginning.

Results are being contested, as the ruling party claims they won majority of the votes. The U.N. has been called upon to observe the investigation of electoral irregularities filed by the CNRP on behalf of 1.2 million voters who could not vote due to fraudulent voter lists.

For the past two years I uprooted from my comfortable life in the capital city of Phnom Penh to establish my new base in Battambang in the northwest. Our teams used traditional methods of campaigning, going from door to door to deliver the message for p’dho that centered around social and economic justice. Land grabs, fair wages for factory workers, access to free health care, and education were the issues for our campaign. The ruling party did not have a platform. The prime minister who ruled Cambodia for 34 years asked people to pity and love him and therefore vote for him. His sons, with their graduate degrees from West Point, appealed for No Change.

These young women of the Cambodia Spring use social media to express their thoughts, to debate and to further defy the culture of silence.

I led our teams to small and remote villages. I looked for the unsung stories. I learned the songs of the villagers. I kept the issues visible at a local level. The aim was to empower the women at the grassroots. We dropped the seeds for democracy. We built partnership with women's groups, and we made it very clear that each Cambodian woman and man held their destiny in their own hands with their private vote. We gave the microphone to any woman who wanted to speak truth. And thousands of stories were told on the opposition radio program, Moving Forward With Women for Women.

During the 30 days that all parties were officially allowed to campaign, I targeted small markets where every single woman in each village gathered to sell her homegrown products and the catch of the day.

It was important to arrive at the right moment, which was the peak time and as early as possible. Our team was limited to five with a loudspeaker mounted on a motorcycle, and in remote areas, the loudspeaker was on a bicycle. The speech could not be longer than 10 minutes and right to the point. I always chose the smallest stall and had a "conversation" with the woman who tended it. I directly asked for the profit she made a day and how she could survive with it. Heads turned, and it was the magic moment when it felt like the entire busy market came to a stop to listen to our "conversation." I knew I connected with the hundreds of female voters—voters like Reun, a middle-aged woman who divorced her husband so she could run as a candidate on the opposition list. A few months back, she heard me address land issues in her commune and became convinced that she needed to enter politics in order to bring justice to other female farmers like herself.

Rarely voters would signal to us that they would vote for the opposition because they knew of the presence of the secret police and the market owner, who usually are on the side of the ruling party. Sometimes our team was challenged by the supporters of the ruling party, and I had to control our members from responding.

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Supporters of Cambodia National Rescue Party gather to give their thumbprints as they complain that their names were not on the voting lists during a public forum in Phnom Penh on July 31. (Heng Sinith/AP)

What amazed me the most were the young women in the city who defied cultural norms and values enshrined in the Chbab Srey, or the Women's Code, that teach them to be obedient, to not speak in public, and to return home before dust. These young women of the Cambodia Spring use social media to express their thoughts, to debate and to further defy the culture of silence. In youth concerts, at rallies across the country, they took to the stage and expressed themselves in music and in songs of hope, of courage, and of their love for their nation. These same young women engaged in a widespread social-media exchange in which they recorded and reported incidents of irregularities and challenged older male candidates on issues related to gender justice.

"They call me Ms. Facebook, and I am proud of it, because I think time has come for Cambodian women to hold their own destiny," says LG, my 24-year-old self-appointed assistant and leader of the youth campaign.

The young women's defiance of culture and traditions amazed me and brought tears to my eyes, as I could vividly see their determination to shape the future of Cambodia. Throughout the campaign, Sipha, a 20-year-old woman, was assigned by the youth committee to be my bodyguard. She took the task and performed it with honor by riding behind my truck in the middle of the hot sun or in the rain. She was given a second task on Election Day to represent the opposition at her polling station. When the opposition No. 7 was announced as winner at her polling station, she broke down, and we embraced, sensing that we were, at long last, in the midst of a Cambodian Spring.

The July 28 election gives good reason to believe that our country is ready to leave behind this period of rule by strongman. Across the nation, women's groups are organized and politically active and are calling out for a true embrace of democracy.

I am thankful to the women of the Cambodian Spring for my reelection and for changing the quality of politics in Cambodia. Seven other women in my party got their seats in Parliament. The opposition party has never been stronger in modern Cambodian history. The Cambodian Spring came after years of rough winter, and as Cambodian women, we cherish the rebirth of our nation as we know we can p'dho.

 

Mu Sochua is a Cambodian M.P., a human-rights advocate, an activist, and one of Cambodia’s leading female opposition figures within the recently formed Cambodia National Rescue Party.