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Meanwhile in Cambodia: The Detention of Mu Sochua

July 17, 2014

Mu Sochua a leading member of the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) was arrested on Tuesday along with five others after a demonstration to gain access to Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park turned violent in clashes between police and some of the protesters. Sochua was elected to the Cambodian parliament in 2013 and is a leading human rights and non-violence advocate in Cambodia. Despite their calls on the protesters to remain calm and non-violent, Sochua and the five others have been charged with insurrection and incitement and have been detained in Phnem Penh’s maximum security prison.  If convicted, they could be sentenced to 30 years in prison. The US State Department, and others, including my home institution Mount Holyoke College have already called on the government for their release. Human Rights Watch called the government to investigate and prosecute those opposition supporters who committed violence, but is also called the insurrection charges “absurd” and yet another “pretext for threatening opposition leaders with prison.”

Sochua is well known to all of us at Mount Holyoke and Smith Colleges and she is truly a courageous and inspiring person. The video clip (above) was filmed at Mount Holyoke back in May when she was here for the annual Women in Public Service Project Institute cosponsored this year by Mount Holyoke College, Smith College,and Simmons College. Sochua’s life story is featured in the powerful theatrical drama SEVEN about seven women who overcame extraordinary challenges to make significant contributions to women’s rights in their home countries. She was the only one of her immediate family members to survive the Cambodian genocide. She became a leading advocate for women’s rights and human rights in Cambodia in the 1990s and eventually became the Minister for Women’s Affairs. She is tirelessly committed to non-violence. Her work has been widely recognized by international human rights and women’s organizations.

The backdrop of her arrest and the protest actions on Tuesday stem from last year’s disputed elections that shocked and dramatically weakened Prime Minister Hun Sen and his Cambodian People’s Party 30-year reign on power.Most election observers reported that vote tampering prevented the CNRP from gaining a parliamentary majority and unseatingHun Sen. After the elections, the NRP and their member-elects began boycotting parliament and held regular demonstrations in Phenom Penh’s Freedom Park. Earlier this year, the government security forces barricaded the park encircling it with barbed wire and banned public demonstrations.Since then, Sochua has been leading regular demonstrations trying to gain access to the park and to press the government to allow an independent audit of the 2013 vote or hold new elections. Tuesday’s demonstration turned violent after security officials started shooting rubber bullets and pepper spray into the crowd.  Protesters then turned on security officials and a number of police officers were beaten — some severely.

It is her non-violent commitment — including the CNRP’s boycott of parliament — that worries Hun Sen’s 30-year regime. The boycott has significantly weakened and delegitimized it. The provocation and ensuing violence on Tuesday does give the regime some new leverage over the opposition and it’s not clear what it will do next. They may offer her release in exchange for the CNRP to end their boycott and to take their seats in parliament. Or they may simply play hardball and move to convict her and her colleagues of insurrection.

But, given the swift international criticism of her detention, the regime is already acutely aware that Sochua has many friends around the world and we will all be watching closely what it does next. It should drop the case against all of the opposition leaders now.

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Jon Western has spent the last fifteen years teaching IR in liberal arts colleges at Mount Holyoke College and the Five Colleges in western Massachusetts. He has an eclectic range of intellectual interests but often writes on international security, U.S. foreign policy, military intervention, and human rights. He occasionally shares his thoughts about professional life in liberal arts colleges. In his spare time he coaches middle school soccer, mentors the local high school robotics team, skis, and sails.