Presenting testimony before members of Congress during the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission hearing ‘Human Rights and the Rule of Law in Cambodia’ on September 10, Parliamentarian and advocate for the Cambodian people Mu Sochua called attention to rights abuses and corruption in her native nation. A Vital Voices Global Leadership Award Honoree for her work on sex trafficking, Sochua was recognized for her courage and activism by Commission Co-Chairmen and U.S. Representatives James McGovern (D-MA) and Frank Wolf (R-VA). Representative Jim Moran (D-VA), who requested that the hearing be held, was in attendance alongside Representatives Ed Royce (R-CA), Joseph Cao (R-LA), and Niki Tsongas (D-MA).
Representative Moran described Sochua as “a woman whom I learned to admire for her honesty, fearlessness, and her pursuit of justice.” The Congressman further related the purpose of the hearing to future efforts and possibility within Cambodia:
“This hearing is not about American interest, it is about human interest, human rights…Cambodia can still become what most of its people wish it to be -free from abuse of human rights, mistreatment of justice and restriction on speech.”
In the Rayburn House Office Building, before a room crowded with human rights activists, NGO representatives and concerned Cambodian-American citizens, Sochua spoke of the struggle she faces as a lawmaker in Cambodia:
“Here in this room, I am testifying as an elected representative of the people, as a woman exercising her full right of speech and expression, but in Cambodia this is not possible.”
Sochua went on to describe a political environment of impunity that represents a critical threat to democracy and the open practice of social, economic and political freedoms. Noting corruption and the illegal mismanagement of international aid and domestic resources, the parliamentarian implored members of Congress to intervene and promote development and reform that may benefit all. The retribution faced by journalists, trade unionists and political opposition activists undermines democratic principle and the rule of law, effectively leading to a condition where “democracy in Cambodia is experiencing an alarming freefall,” she said.
Calling for the U.S. Congress to send a high level delegation to Cambodia, Sochua asked that this body would serve to negotiate dialogue among parliament leaders and promote democratic rules within the government. Further, the lawmaker specifically requested an increase in funding for the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the International Republican Institute (IRI), asking that these agencies be granted increased capacity to coordinate with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in “democratizing the electoral process for the upcoming local elections in 2012 and the parliamentary elections in 2013.”
Included among a list of specific requests for action on the part of the U.S. Congress was a request by Sochua for intervention regarding the restoration of parliamentary immunity of opposition Members of Parliament. In August, Sochua was found guilty of defamation in a case that has been widely condemned and cited as an example of bias within the Cambodian judiciary. Asserting that she refuses to accept guilt for a crime that she has not committed, Sochua has filed an appeal and continues in her pursuit of justice though she may face persecution upon returning to Cambodia.
Fellow witnesses testifying in the hearing were Pung Kek, founder of the Cambodian human rights NGO LICADHO, Moeun Tola, head of the labor program at the Cambodian organization Community Legal Education Center, and Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director of Human Rights Watch.
Before concluding the hearing, Representative McGovern emphasized that he and his colleagues are concerned for the safety of the Cambodian witnesses, going on to offer them the security afforded by U.S. Embassy officials on the ground, and offering assurances that he and members of Congress will be closely monitoring their situation once they return to Cambodia. The two Co-Chairmen resolved that letters would be sent to relevant government officials, including U.S. Secretary of Defense Gates, informing them of current conditions in Cambodia and recommending further actions to by the U.S.
Following the hearing, Sochua met with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues Melanne Verveer, discussing the situation in Cambodia with them.