In Jakarta on 8 December, politicians, activists, and scholars dug deeper into the themes covered in New Mandala‘s ongoing series on Southeast Asia’s crisis of democracy at a special forum hosted by the TIFA Foundation. Among the speakers was Mu Sochua, a senior member of Cambodia’s Cambodian National Rescue Party, which was dissolved by a court order on 16 November 2017. A long time human rights advocate and former Minister for Womens Affairs, she has now joined other CNRP figures in exile after being threatened with imprisonment. New Mandala editor Liam Gammon met with her for a brief interview about how the opposition is adapting to the crackdown.
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Do you think that by shutting off institutional avenues for opposition to his rule, Hun Sen has raised the probably of some sort of popular uprising—some kind of “people power” movement?
They are waiting for the opposition leaders to give the signal. In 2013 when we contested the result of the elections, we were in the streets for over three or four months. Up to half a million people were with us; we were at park called Freedom Park, it was the most beautiful, beautiful moment for democracy in Cambodia and never had it happened before.
Our party is not just a political party. It comes from a movement, from civil society, that has been able to plant democracy’s seeds in Cambodia for quite some time—after the Paris peace accords. It is actually the UN program on human rights free and fair elections that brought the Cambodian people the principles of democracy, of free and fair elections.
So, after that moment, people and then on the fourth of January 2014 Hun Sen brought the tank, shot the workers—since then, we have not been able to bring the people back. But then after that moment, when they shut down Freedom Park, I myself led a group—there were just two or three of us and then it went on to thousands and thousands—for three months, then I was arrested. Put in jail. And now my colleagues are now in jail for 20 years.
If you look back on the long road leading up to the crackdown this year, are you and other opposition figures thinking about some of the strategic mistakes that the opposition may have made? If you had to identify some things that you would have done differently, what would they be?
There are always gaps and short-sighted decisions. For example, at that moment when the tanks were coming at us—and every day we had half a million people with us—we were fighting all the time about whether to take the crowd to the right, or the left, you know—to confront the parliament and the government, to cross over the bridge, or whatever. So I was always in the camp of the young people—hot-headed, but my leaders are more like “no, we can’t do that”. I come from civil society, you see.
So we have always been, and even today, accused of not having good leadership. But we had half a million people—why did we not take over parliament? And we went over that for so long, even today. But one thing was very clear: we do not want to have bloodshed. Because of our past genocide. At any time in the day when Sam Rainsy said “march”, people will come out and march. But we’re not doing that. And we went into parliament after a year of boycott. When we signed the agreement with Hun Sen, we were too quick to accept the agreements. He [Hun Sen] promised that there be reforms in the judiciary, he promised that the opposition minority would be recognised, he promised that we could have our own TV. We signed the agreement, but we didn’t look at the details, and he didn’t deliver on the details. We lost at that.
Do you think there was an element of complacency within the leadership about whether Hun Sen would actually follow through on those commitments?
Not complacency, but I think we were too—we made an agreement on the basis of mutual trust. But Hun Sen is not a democrat. And our mistake it that we assumed that he is a democrat.
And this is a central question for outside observers. If we’re making this claim that Hun Sen has killed Cambodian democracy, by implication we’re saying that from 1993 until 2017 it was a functioning democracy. In hindsight do you think that in reality this is not really the fall of a democracy or the fall of a pretence of democracy?
Full democracy, no. A façade of democracy. He allowed us to function in that framework. And the donors—we all knew. But we kept on going for democratic change within elections. But when he saw, and he sees now, that he will never win a truly democratic—even half democratic—elections, that’s why he had to kill it. However, we have 25 years of grassroots—this is not just elitist democracy, but grassroots. So we refuse to say we give up. We are banned from politics for 5 years, but we’re still very active. And we have to reconnect with civil society and our structure inside [Cambodia].
On the China question: there’s an idea that’s getting stronger that part of the reason why Hun Sen has been so confident in cracking down on the media, civil society, and opposition forces is because Beijing, as it were, will have his back. I guess the question is are we in danger of overstating the influence of China? Would he have done this anyway?
No. I think the international community has been complacent. They want to say “okay, we’re finished with Cambodia”.
They saw it coming! The last time they had a real donor meeting with Hun Sen was four or five years ago. They made no demands whatsoever. And on top of that, I think they forget that Hun Sen needs the legitimacy. Hun Sen has a lot of money. His children have a lot of money. His cronies have a lot of money—invested in Australia, in France, in the USA. So when the US has imposed vis sanctions, within a day, Hun Sen says: “will you reconsider”. It touches a nerve, because he wants China and he wants the west at the same time. But the west is not willing to use its leverage.
It’s interesting that you mention the donor meetings, because they have become infamous as a ritual whereby the donors make of Hun Sen, there are promises that are never fulfilled, and they come back next year and nothing’s changed. Hun Sen has always done terrible things to the opposition—1997 for instance—and gotten away with it. Do international donors have to share in some of the blame for the current situation?
They put in five billion dollars and here it is. Look the judiciary. What reforms have taken place? Look at the scale of corruption. And even now, Australia, for example, still wants to engage Hun Sen, through this $50 million [sic] refugee deal that they made. What is this? So there is no way Australia can say “we didn’t know, we’re not part of it, we tried our best”. I just went to meet with your foreign minister, she still wants to engage Hun Sen. She doesn’t want to isolate Hun Sen. It’s because of the $50 million deal. This is really peeling [away] democracy. And this is how dictators survive. Even killers survive.
So if the threat of withholding western largesse hasn’t changed the regime’s behaviour before, why should we expect it to change now?
Before, Hun Sen didn’t have a lot of money. Now he has a lot of money. “He” meaning all his cronies, his generals. So they have to protect their territory. Before they fought to survive, now they fight to keep the money. To keep the prestige that they have, to keep the comfort that they have. But all of this could crumble very quickly, because he doesn’t fight on principle or anything, he fights just for his own power, so he’s very vulnerable.
This seems almost a silly question to ask, but do you see any role for Southeast Asian governments in disciplining Hun Sen?
Surely. Surely. We have to take measures to prevent another tragedy in Cambodia. If you study the ruling party structure, it has not changed from the communist structure. They had cells, groups, from a group of five, a group of ten, that spy on each other. Now, Hun Sen is doing the same thing. The parents are spying on the children because the youth are not voting for Hun Sen. But they are buying the parents, to force their children to vote for Hun Sen. And the children say no! in the past it was the children that spied on their parents—to see who is communist and who is not, to see who is Khmer Rouge and who is not. It’s the same type of control.
I assume you and your opposition colleagues are still communicating frequently?
There’s a lot of difficulty.
At what point do opposition leaders countenance trying, from abroad, to encourage street mobilisation?
Right now if we were to do it, I don’t know. We haven’t been able to meet in the same room to strategise. So it’s like dealing with this crisis one thing at a time, and that’s why we’re now saying we need to meet.
Within a party there are always differences. So we can fight within the party, and come up with a concrete game plan. Some people say “why don’t we go in. Why don’t we mobilise the people and march again?” Then some people say: “Are you crazy?” Some people are saying “how about a government in exile?”. But definitely, we are—
—strictly speaking, you haven’t won an election yet, so a government in exile might seem a little bit premature…
A shadow government. Although we knew that in 2013 we won, so we are capable of getting the votes. But we don’t want to think that way [about a government in exile], because that means long term outside, in exile. That would kill the hope of the people inside. We have to keep the hope alive.
So you envision a situation in which you and your colleagues could return to Cambodia?
Yeah. Any day. It could be any day. That’s why the role of ASEAN, the role of southeast Asian leaders—it may only take one person, to talk to Hun Sen and say, “what about a dignified exit strategy”.
Who do you think has that kind of clout in Southeast Asia?
Do you see any movement there? Have they been sympathetic?
In the past, yes, it’s always been Japan who talked to Hun Sen.
The United States?
They are great at taking actions, but it antagonises. It’s good they deliver. But Hun Sen can say, “oh, it’s the United States”. And all the donors can say “that’s the US.”
It’s interesting that there’s this impulse to talk about the external influences, because one of the criticisms of the opposition, and of Sam Rainsy in particular, was that he was better at cultivating support and networks in Washington or Paris than he was in Phnom Penh.
No, no, no. Totally wrong. Of course, high ranking officials talk to him. But his popularity is in the country. Sam Rainsy can go anywhere in the country, the crowd around him. He’s a symbol. Like Khem Sokha. Even me, when I go to my country, I don’t need anything, I walk around and people get me a motorcycle.
We represent the hope of the people. He is educated, he speaks the language of an educated person. But if he were so close to France, to the Élysée, France would be working with us today. France is not working. We were saying, “France? Where are you?”
You have to live a life on the move now. Living in exile is expensive, isolating, stressful—do you feel safe in exile? Do you expect to be, or have you been, contacted by representatives of the regime?
In Thailand. When I go to Thailand, I don’t feel safe. Now that I talk a lot, that I am the face of the opposition—I’m on BBC, I’m on Aljazeera—I worry. You never know; you don’t want to touch these nerves. And I always go alone. The expenses are always covered somehow. And the loneliness, I have to deal with that. My children want me home, my grandchild wants me home. Of course, I just went through the passing away of my husband. So it’s been a long, difficult two years. However, serving democracy keeps me alive. And I refuse to slow down, although I wish I could, but that’s not a choice. And I have the choice of staying home in Cambodia, but staying behind in a cell. Being captured.
Now there are some CNRP figures left in Cambodia, are they able to engage in any political activity, or are they laying low?
No, they are laying low. Even in communicating with them, we try to not endanger them. We have many in Thailand as well, so even speaking to them—I’m going to go through Thailand, they come to meet me at the airport. I don’t go to visit where they are. And their places have been raided by the local police in Thailand.
So to put it in simple terms, you see the Thai regime as unfriendly to the opposition?
So far they have not kicked us out, but they have given us the message: don’t do anything political. But with Khun Kasit [Piromya], who is the go-between between us and the military, we have been able to stay in Bangkok.
Although you say you have the hope of going back to Cambodia, in the back of your mind do you think about a life outside of Cambodia forever?[Smiles]. I don’t want to think about it. Because my husband’s ashes are at home. I had less than 24 hours to pack my bags. We had a beautiful home, and a beautiful life. My people are beautiful people. It pains me to stay away from them. It pains me to hear them crying, going back to the farm, going back to being motor taxi drivers, are used to living in exile, are used to hiding [sic], it’s very painful.
The clock is ticking; there’s going to be some kind of election in Cambodia next year, do you think there’s a possibility that Hun Sen could climb down from his current strategy and there could be some kind of free and fair contest? And if not, are you planning towards subsequent elections as a next goal?
At this point we want to be optimistic, so we are focused on lobbying ASEAN. We have done a lot of work in Europe and the US, now it’s ASEAN.
Do you have realistic hopes of being able to contest in 2018?
Yep. We only need six months. Because we are so sure of our strategy.
So in the short term, what do you define as success?
Free[ing] Kem Sokha on 10 December. And for us to go home.