Deputy Leader, Cambodian National Rescue Party
Senior Fellow, Women and Foreign Policy Program, Council on Foreign Relations
As one of the most prominent women in Cambodian politics, Mu Sochua has championed democratic values and human rights. Yet, in 2017 Sochua was forced to flee Cambodia amidst a government crackdown on opposition leaders and civil society. Though she is unable to return to Cambodia, Sochua has continued to fight for her country. Sochua discusses her experiences in government and how women’s political participation can advance reforms and gender equality.
STONE: Good morning. Welcome. We’re so honored and thankful that all of you were able to join us today. Thank you so much.
I want to introduce myself. My name is Meighan Stone. I’m a senior fellow here in the Women and Foreign Policy program at CFR, and previous to joining the team here was the president at the Malala Fund. So I worked with Malala Yousafzai the last three years. So I’m all the more honored to be accompanied by someone that was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize today.
Our mission here at the Women and Foreign Policy program is to analyze how elevating the status of women and girls around the world advances our U.S. foreign policy objectives. So to that end, this conversation is actually on the record today. I know many of our conversations at CFR have Chatham House rules.
Today is not that day. We actually want you to engage fully. If you have one of these with you, I’m going to ask you to tweet. Don’t be afraid of Twitter. You can use the—I’m looking at you, Anne—thank you. She’s got her phone out, ready to go. You can take—you can take photos, you know, if there’s something that’s meaningful that you hear today.
If you use the hashtag #CFRWomen—so #CFRWomen—our team can better find your comments and thoughts and retweet them and share them more widely. So please engage with us on social platforms.
So for our program today, we’re going to be having a conversation with our speaker for the first thirty minutes, and then around 11:00 a.m. we’re excited to open it up to all of your questions, your thoughts, and your feedback.
I want to start by just expressing some special gratitude to our friends who are joining us today from the Oslo Freedom Forum and from the Human Rights Foundation because they helped make today possible. If you want to raise your hands, I just want to say thank you to you for your partnership and for making today possible. (Applause.)
They have an event here on Monday—the Oslo Freedom Forum does—with human rights activists from around the world. So if you want to join in, you can talk to them after today’s session. I know they would love to share information with you and warmly welcome you.
So let’s get started. Today, we are so honored to welcome Mu Sochua for a conversation about her experiences in government and how women’s political participation can help advance both reforms and gender equality. We know that women are, woefully, underrepresented in politics around the world. Globally, we’re looking at just about twenty-three percent of parliamentarians and six percent of heads of state—hopefully, the U.S. can increase that percentage someday soon—and this is despite research that greater female political representation has been shown to positively affect not only policymaking but even budget measurements and impact in ways that benefit not only women but entire communities and countries.
So we’re really humbled today to be joined by a trailblazer in women’s political leadership. One of the most prominent women in Cambodian politics, Sochua serves as the deputy leader of the Cambodian National Rescue Party and she has long championed democratic values and human rights.
Yet, in 2017, she was forced to flee Cambodia amidst a government crackdown on opposition leaders and civil society who were resisting Prime Minister and strongman Hun Sen’s thirty-three-year rule. Though she is unable to return to Cambodia, Sochua has continued to fight for her country. She has dedicated her life to women’s rights and advancing democracy in Southeast Asia. As a daughter of disappeared Sino Khmer parents, Sochua spent most of her young adult life in exile here in the United States.
When she returned to Cambodia in 1991, she founded Khemara, a nongovernmental organization focused on women’s empowerment. She went on to win a seat in parliament and she became the first minister for women’s affairs and for veterans’ affairs, and she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005.
In 2014, she stepped down to become vice president of the National Rescue Party, Cambodia’s main opposition party. She’s currently traveling the world and she’s meeting with international leaders to call for action against government corruption.
And so, bringing us to today, our discussion could not be more timely or important with all the evolving news out of Cambodia even this week. So on Monday we saw the release of National Rescue Party opposition leader Kem Sokha on bail a year after he was jailed on treason charges in September 2017 that were widely seen as politically motivated and to prevent him from challenging Hun Sen in elections.
And as we know, a few months after his arrest, they completely dissolved the party and all of its senior members, including Sochua, are banned from political engagement for five years. Kem Sokha was released from jail at 3:00 a.m. on Monday near the border of Vietnam, officially citing his poor health. But lawyers and family members say that he will now be confined to a one-block—one-block—radius from his home and under constant court supervision.
Under the terms of his release, he’s barred from political activities as well as contact with any colleagues including Sochua and any foreign nationals who are allegedly linked to his treason charges.
So you said, Sochua, in some media engagement earlier today and yesterday that he is virtually under house arrest at this time. And then where is Prime Minister Hun Sen this week? Well, he spoke yesterday at the World Economic Forum regional meeting in Vietnam where he not only defended the fraudulent election but also went so far as to say that the violence against Rohingya Muslims in neighboring Burma was unfair criticism and that the government were political victims.
So some sharp contrasts in approach to governance and human rights. So with all that background, we’re really thrilled to welcome today Ms. Sochua to share with us about her work and her role as a woman and political leader.
So, Sochua, I want to just start with asking you about recent events. It’s been a really powerful and challenging few days. What does this release from jail mean for your party, for your movement, for your work here, and for your campaigning in exile?
SOCHUA: Do I have to push here?
STONE: No, it’s on.
SOCHUA: It’s on. First of all, I wish to thank you all for allowing me to be with you at the Council on Foreign Relations. This is a very prestigious institution. It is a privilege, really, and an honor. It is at the moment in the life of democracy in Cambodia and it’s a moment as well for me to be in New York speaking on behalf of half of the country—of my people.
Why do I say half? Because over three million voters in Cambodia voted for change in 2013, the parliamentary election where I won for the third time a seat in parliament, and in 2017, again, our party, the only opposition party, won forty-four percent of the vote. So the Cambodian people, especially the young people, who represent over—about seventy percent of the population—seventy percent of the population—under the age of thirty-five want change. Yes.
What all of this means to us at this moment being in exile, democracy in Cambodia is dead after how many billions of money from the international community.
STONE: Thank you.
SOCHUA: This—and it has been an incredible journey for the democrats in Cambodia. When I say democrats, I don’t mean that Cambodia have—has Democrats and Republicans. No, I mean—I mean democrats in the sense of people who will, like here as well, anywhere in the world, who believe in the basic principle of the fundamental human rights and fundamental principle of democracy.
What it means to us right now, and I put it in the context of women, the hardcore politics—I put it in the context of women and that’s why—and that’s how I entered politics in 1995 as a women’s rights activist, inspired by Hillary Clinton at the time, the First Lady of the United States, who spoke at the Beijing Fourth World Conference on Women—that you have to have power and power to make changes for the lives of women.
It has been a very difficult moment in my personal life, being in exile again. I’m no longer eighteen, as you can see, and then in my head I work and I live in four, five different time zones, depending on where politics call me to be. At this moment, all we want is to get Cambodia democracy back on track so that our women’s—our women’s lives are secured—the children of Cambodia, the women of Cambodia, the families in Cambodia.
It is a nation that has been broken and we have been living in the legacy of the Khmer Rouge—the Khmer Rouge that killed over two million Cambodians, including my parents. That legacy continues to haunt us, and because it is haunting us that it makes the opposition party a very strong party because we represent the base—people at the base—the farmers, the workers, the local women, victims of many atrocities.
So we are fine looking for solutions and we hope that the actions that have been taken inside Cambodia, outside with the—with the support of the international community, especially the United States, will lead to us going home soon.
STONE: Thank you for sharing that. I know that the U.S. and the EU, even this morning, have been engaged in a variety of tactics—put pressure on Hun Sen’s regime.
Let’s talk about your own entry into politics. You just talked about being exiled at the age of 18. So, you know, for much of your childhood and your young adulthood you lived here in the United States and then, you know, pursued education. You got degrees in psychology, in social work. You worked as a community organizer, and then you decide to return to Cambodia and then you decided to enter politics.
What was that moment of decision? What made you decide to go home? What made you decide to pursue that work and how did that work as a social worker, as a community organizer, inform your political agenda for what you would fight for when you became a leader?
SOCHUA: It has never been a decision. It was always—from the beginning when I left Cambodia, it was always the circumstances, politics—political circumstances that pushed me into making decisions for myself and for my people. And when I left Cambodia in ’72, it was either you stayed behind and lived with the communists or you are sent out for a better education, and, luckily, my mother, who had only three years of education, wanted her daughters to be educated.
I remember very well growing up, when I was eight, probably, sitting next to my mother, who was trying how to read and write, learning the ABCs, and I was learning also, doing my homework. I was—I remember her very well taking us to the airport, but we didn’t know it was the last time. That was in ’72. And going back home was never a question in my mind. It was an obligation, and it’s, again, for me to be working and speaking on behalf of my people is an obligation.
STONE: Thank you for sharing. That’s so powerful.
I know that you’ve been committed a long time to this work. For six years, you worked with the U.N. to assist about a quarter million displaced Cambodians, you know, and to this day you’re working with international organizations and partners to try to bring pressure in this situation.
How did that experience shape you, working with the U.N. with displaced Cambodians globally and what did you learn in that experience that you take into your work today?
SOCHUA: I think each moment of my life has been a moment of—you add the chips and then you add more cement in the foundation, however painful it is. But you grow to be more open to the reality of the lives of the people. That’s why I went into social work at the UC Berkeley and psychology at San Francisco State, because I was working as a(n) interpreter for the first waves of Cambodian and refugees to the San Francisco Bay area. I was—I was not a refugee yet at the time. I was a student, and there were very few Cambodian students at the time.
So I interpreted for them and I realized very, very quickly—it hit me that I am really one of them, and you have to—it’s a twenty-four-hour job because it stays in your heart and in your mind. But what is important is that they should not be treated as victims. They are not just refugees. They are human beings and they are survivors, and they need just a moment of peace so that they can put their lives back together, and that has taught me the fundamental issues of human rights, dignity, and value and the respect for that—those fundamental values and human rights.
And the reason—and this is why, as a vice president of the only opposition in Cambodia, I speak for the women of Cambodia. I speak about the everyday lives of the women in Cambodia as well as I’m connected with the global issues of women. When I was minister, I focused very clearly on changing the Cambodian proverb that says men are gold, women are just a white piece of cloth. If it is men are gold, gold, you know, when it is dropped in mud, you can pick it up and you brush off the mud—it shines again. But a white piece of cloth, if it is stained, it’s stained forever.
So as a minister, I was the first woman to be representing that ministry. It was headed by a man before. They couldn’t find a woman to head—to head the women’s ministry. We changed the proverb to men are gold but women are precious gems. So in that context of precious gems, I—we focused on a very—a key issue, which is the fundamental human rights of women. And then when we chose issues and we looked at the actual challenges for women—why are they losing their human rights and respect—and that is all because of the exposure to gender-based violence. That includes domestic violence, of course, human trafficking, HIV and AIDS, and that’s why we pushed again for a law, which is the domestic violence law, and which I pushed for the draft and it got passed.
And then I always look at the reality—not just theory, not just policy, but mixing it all. So I would go to brothels. I would go to factories. I would go to demonstrations so that—to give the people whose life we’re talking about—to build trust with them and also to say, you know, what you are going through we need to know and we need to defend it, no matter who you are, because as a member of parliament or as a minister it is—I believe that I got more credibility by taking dossiers and dossiers to the parliament and say, listen, when we talk about gender-based violence, when we argue for this article, this law, we know what we are talking about. So it is that type of attitude that I have.
So now when democracy in Cambodia is dead, we take the same attitude. Release the prisoners of conscience. I have been in jail and I don't want to go back to jail. That’s why I’m in exile. We had to be practical. As I get older, I get more practical. (Laughter.) I’ve become more practical and this time I refuse to be in jail. I am here speaking with you and I will continue on speaking again. And it may take years, but we have to tell the untold stories of the women back in Cambodia.
STONE: Yes. Well, I’d love to talk about some of the concrete legal and legislative victories that you achieved in your time in government that you were just referencing. It’s a pretty impressive list. So you authored the domestic violence laws, you shared. You negotiated an agreement with Thailand to curtail sex trafficking. You launched a campaign to engage NGOs, law enforcement, and rural women in a national dialogue on women’s development, so an incredible agenda that had really significant legal and economic impacts.
What were the barriers, you know, when you were trying to do that work in government? What were you facing in a daily way in terms of push back against, trying to put some of these really groundbreaking laws on the books? There must have been tremendous resistance. How did you go about the political work of bringing people together to support these laws and pass these laws for the first time?
SOCHUA: I think being an activist, going into politics as an activist, has some plusses and some minuses. The plusses is that you speak with the reality. We have stories to tell, yeah, and you’re flexible. When there is a strike, when there is a protest and you are there, the people embrace you. They are—you’re part of them.
However, it also—I remember very, very, very well before I went into exile the situation was very, very bad. One of the French official at the French embassy in Cambodia pulled me aside and say, madam, you have to stop being an activist—you represent a political party. It hit me. However, what does the party mean? And then I have to define what does the party mean if it is not the life of the people?
But it teaches me that you have to find a balance. You have to find a balance. It also teaches us to—the word credibility, accountability, and transparency. All these words, I didn’t get it when I was an activist in the streets. I got it through politics and I—and our party demands that and that’s why we got forty-four percent and we represent half of the country because we put politics in a new—it’s not the old-style politics in Cambodia.
We say to the dictator, Mr. Hun Sen, you can’t drag Cambodia back to the Khmer Rouge because, you know, today we have this social media and you can’t hide from it. The—what is—the challenges that I get personally because I’m a woman, because I’m educated, and they hold that against me—I’m educated in the West, especially in the United States—now because the opposition party—my leader—is in jail today and they dissolved my party—our party today is because Mr. Hun Sen accused us of creating a color revolution led by the United States. So being—and I have a U.S. citizen—I am a U.S. citizen. Therefore, it is always against us for bringing in, for brainwashing our people with the what’s human rights, what’s democracy; we were fine until the U.S. came in.
Now, this type of language you know that it is the language of a dictator that is desperate to hang on to his power. So we have to continue to speak on—with the language of the people and put the word—what is transparency. They took—now Cambodia is signing billions of dollars of contract worth of billions of dollars with China, taking away millions of hectares of land from our fishermen, from our farmers.
What does it mean—the word transparency mean to a farmer, to a fisherman, to a woman who has no education whatsoever? She—but what you have to explain to her the government is signing this contract, taking your land, your crops, your boat, your river, giving it to China. You want to know what is in that contract. That’s called transparency.
So what—but the challenge is that you have to be on the ground, and Mr. Hun Sen knows very well that transparency is a—actually, he does not want transparency or accountability. That’s why he had to dissolve us. He had to kick us out. He had to kick civil society out. He had to close down the major—in a week, all the radio stations—twenty radio stations were closed down, just like that.
The death of democracy in Cambodia was delivered by a bullet train. It was done within a few months. All the work that we put on the ground for the past twenty years after the war was finished in—from February to—from a—for less than six months.
STONE: Well, I’d love to go back to July of 2014. So this is when you and several other members of the Cambodian National Rescue Party were arrested. You were leading a series of nonviolent protests. So my favorite footage of you is in the park, giving speeches and rallying people.
But after your arrest, we saw how important global support can be—networks of support—whether that’s governmental action, advocacy, political figures calling for your release. I know our colleagues at Human Rights Watch have done incredible work supporting your campaign as well and want to salute them for their efforts.
So we saw this outpouring of support. Can you talk about what’s really helping now? Like, what can governments like the U.S. continue to do? What can other governments that are sympathetic do? What can activists and organizations do to support your work in country even as you’re in exile?
SOCHUA: It’s a combination of the work inside Cambodia, the hope that we must—we continue to give to our people by using social media. I go live for ten minutes every day, giving a message to the people. About half of the country have access to a smart phone these days and, as I said, seventy percent of our populations are between the age of—under the age of thirty-five. Yeah.
So keeping the hope alive, keeping the issues on the ground alive and reporting those issues, and the youth—although the people inside Cambodia cannot speak, but we follow the news and we speak on their behalf. Like, you know, what China is doing right now—they can’t say what China is doing right now, but we know what China is doing right now. And so keeping them alive and then saying to them—this morning I saw them, the farmers, on the—marching to the city and I saw, again, yesterday a group of young people who went to the ministry of education and protested and say, how come you drop us out from—there’s an exam for baccalaureate and it turned out that there was a technical error in the computer and the students went and protested.
So my message to the young people, I say, see, protest—go talk to the minister, and they got—now they can pass the test. So it’s this type of very concrete action that we—people inside and people outside—us outside pull resources together. We have to be united—unity, solidarity, meaning, what do we want for Cambodia? Democracy.
We want to—for a Cambodia that respects human rights, rule of law. We want to stop the issue of corruption. We want real, free, and fair elections, not sham elections. Just last July, a few months ago—July, August, September, so months ago—Mr. Hun Sen, through his sham election, his party collected all the 125 parliamentary seats. All.
It’s now a one-party state and he is coming to the United States, to the U.N., on the 28th to introduce himself as the representative of the people of Cambodia. No. We have communities in the United States—Cambodian-Americans diaspora—in Australia as well, in Europe as well. We are protesting every single day, and thanks to the media, fighting—Mr. Hun Sen has his own media called Fresh News, or fake news—his Fresh News—fresh and fake news.
So we, luckily, through—like today, through an independent international media—the global media—reporting on Cambodia is really, really key. Every single moment we can be on—Cambodia is on the global media, we rush to get there. Otherwise, the world will forget. It’s just another story. And Mr. Hun Sen is very clever. There is no blood in the streets of Cambodia. But there is not one single person who can be on the street in Cambodia without being arrested and being accused of being part of “color revolution” and we know the international community, the media, does not react until there’s blood in the streets.
We don’t want blood in the streets. That’s why we are protesting, and then we have to be very, very focused in what we want. We want free and fair elections. We want a—the release of our leader, release of the prisoners of conscience, and we want Cambodia back on track. And the world community is—especially the United States is taking the lead at the world community to impose targeted sanctions on the officials of Cambodia—the government of Cambodia.
For example, there is a ban and we are talking about—the United States is also—at the Senate is—it should be passed, hopefully, soon—the Magnitsky law—the Global Magnitsky law on Cambodia, and the EU this morning at their parliament just passed a resolution that called pretty much for whatever the world community is calling for, which is free and fair elections, back to—democracy in Cambodia must be put back.
STONE: Well, I want to move to my final question for you. So if—everyone else in the room get ready with your question. We’re going to open it up in just a moment. So I want to fast forward to a hopeful moment to come in the future, which would be your return, so your return, going to Cambodia one day. What would be your agenda for—particularly for women if you were to return?
What would you see or what would you envision helping to create that would ensure women’s political leadership, representation, that their rights would be protected, their contributions to furthering democracy in a new vision for Cambodia? What would be the agenda that you would think would be most important upon return home if you are so lucky to have that moment?
SOCHUA: First, I have to go collect my suitcases. I don’t know where they are. (Laughter.) It would be an incredible victory for us and I believe it will happen, and I ask you to, please, write to your senators and say, pass the Magnitsky law on Cambodia. I ask you to, please, if you are—not just the United States but you—any government you are involved with, call those governments who will be speaking at the U.N. to raise the issue of Cambodia—why is Mr. Hun Sen representing Cambodia at the U.N.—he stole—he destroyed democracy. That’s at the global level.
To the people, when we walk in—I say walk in—whether we fly in or we walk in across the border, I think it has to be a moment where the people come together en masse and show to Mr. Hun Sen it is not a few of these returnees coming back from exile. It is to prepare for the election. And for the women of Cambodia, who are always, always, on the front line at every single protest, is there’s the tribute to their courage, to the sacrifices they have made, and we need to say to our women, choose among them, especially the young ones, to take my place.
Get into politics. Politics have to be defined by the action on the street. I watch also the movements in America—the #MeToo movement—and I always say, wow, how could we do #MeToo in Cambodia, too. Now, and every—when I was—when I’m really down, I look at the social rights movement in America. I read speeches of Nelson Mandela.
But it’s really actually very few women—very few women in the world. We have Aung San Suu Kyi, but she is now tied to a really, really controversial issue, which is the Rohingya. Yeah. Women in the social movement today, you look at them and they are young people. Of my generation, of our generation, there’s very few, and the issues are different. Their fight is different because they have this access that we didn’t have. They have social media. I look at my—the young activist from Bolivia. Raise your hand. (Laughter.) You are next. Yes.
So I think what is important is the support that these movements need, whether that is financial—they need financial support, like me. I’m trying to raise funds so that my colleagues who were put in jail, who are in jail, whose lives were destroyed, to put their lives back together. Those who were put in jail with me, they were not privileged to be protected with parliamentary immunity. They stayed back in jail, and they are—they have just been released last week, and every single family is destroyed. Every single family.
There’s a case so painful of the wife who was gang raped more than once when her husband was inside and then forced to pay over $20,000 and the—her husband is back and called me and said, this is our life now. They have a child who is mentally disabled. They have to get out of Cambodia because those gangsters are after them. So this is reality, you know, and this reality they can’t talk about until we in—so we are not just a party. It’s a movement.
So a political party needs to have this movement—connected with the movement and the movement needs support, whether it is your word, your letter, your tweets, whatever. But don’t leave us isolated. It’s not just our fight. The global democracy is in trouble—in real trouble anywhere in the world. This is what we need to say and that’s why I thank—again, I thank you for picking this topic today at the Council on Foreign Relations, giving Cambodia a chance to speak. But it’s not just about Cambodia. It’s about global democracy and women in global democracy.
STONE: Powerful words. Thank you so much, Sochua.
I know we are keen to open up the discussion to all of you. So, as you know, you can raise your placard and that’s how I know to call upon you. Please identify yourself. We welcome your brief questions and, again, we invite you to engage on Twitter. Again, the hashtag is #CFRWomen if you want to share any of our discussions today.
So I see Lucy right in front of me, if you want to start us off.
Q: Yeah. Lucy Komisar. I’m a journalist.
Can you tell us how you got to the point where you got forty-four percent in an election. and is that the reason for the crackdown—the threat that was going up and up and up? The question is you seem to have done very well and then you got knocked down. So could you explain a little bit about that?
SOCHUA: Yes. Forty-four percent didn’t come in a day nor a year. It took us twenty years—over twenty years. The leader of the opposition—the leaders of the opposition were a minister or human rights activist and we walked—we campaigned—we walked the campaign trail every single day for over twenty years, just listening to people, and then from that movement came the party and workers’ rights, human rights, women’s rights.
We put it all together into a platform and at every single election we get more support because we speak so much about the issues. That’s how we got forty-four percent, and actually, we won the last election in 2013 but it was not given to us, and when we went back to the streets for six months. Then we got—then there was another election and again the people—again, we kept on walking the streets.
We don’t have financial means, but we have the trust of the people. I think this is when a party is healthy. It’s not about the money, and when we run—well, we need the money but we run by walking the campaign trail and keeping the issues alive.
Q: And that’s why he went after you?
SOCHUA: We went—yes, and in the July election—the July election—we would have won for sure and take Cambodia to democracy. But it was clear Mr. Hun Sen knew that he would lose—he would have lost his power. And instead of just not letting us compete, if we—if we even had one day to compete we would have won. That’s why he had to go to the ruling through the Supreme Court to dissolve the party entirely, and we cannot go in and we are forbidden to conduct any political activity for five years.
STONE: Thank you.
I want to go to Khadija. It should be on.
Q: Thank you so much.
I actually—as you probably know, we have a primary today in New York and I was thinking that you should be on that ballot. (Laughter.)
My question is about China and the role of China in strengthening the actual regime right now. Do you see any potential of influencing—from the outside influencing the Chinese government to at least allow a dialogue with the current regime instead of strengthening it for its own economic and, obviously, geopolitical benefits? Or do you think that China has gone too far into its own self-interest—that there is really no broker in the region to play that role?
SOCHUA: China—wherever I go, I meet foreign ministers. They’ll say, China. I say, so China—so what—what about democracy—have you talked about democracy—you left democracy—you’ve let democracy down—because grassroots movements are not given the chance, and now grassroots movements are back.
So it’s—this is about grassroots movements in my country as well. Every single community has to be empowered. Every single activist have to be trained in leadership and speaking on the—addressing, making that—taking that message very strongly, like the high school students in America after the traumatic event—the shooting. It is no longer—it is no longer the politics of the old party. Even within the old party, there has to be a renewal—a change within the party. Otherwise, China will be. You can’t kick out China.
However, you can. Ask—you should ask yourself why you cannot kick out China. It’s because you hang on to the old power. It is the new power. It is—China cannot deal with the grassroots movement. China will work with any leader that is put into a position in leadership. Therefore, you need to have free and fair elections.
Every single time there is free and fair election, no matter what level of elections, give the power to the people. And you look at the disasters. You look at the civil unrest. It’s all about old leaders not listening to what the youth are saying. But I am inspired by especially the female candidates in the primaries—that’s the way to go—coming out of nowhere but strongly holding on that fight, no matter what the fight is. Is there an issue? Take that issue all the way. And I think the world needs to be rejuvenated—rejuvenation. Yes. It has to come back to what’s the core issue—what are we fighting for—and it’s the same with the financial world. You take our money but you don’t—you cannot take our lives.
We demand respect. We demand solutions with you. Otherwise, the world is in big trouble. Look at the EU. Look at the West. Europe—the anti-immigration—the right-wing European party is winning in Europe. That is scary—very scary. But we have to come down to the roots of the problem.
STONE: All right. I’m going to try to get as many questions in as we can. I see a lot of placards. I’m going to go to Eason Jordan next.
Q: First, thank you so much for your heroic, critically important work. You really inspire us.
So you spoke of Hillary Clinton being an inspiration to you. Well, I’m sure you had not just her moral support but support from many other powerful people in the U.S. government in a previous era. So my question is, for the government in the United States that’s in place today, do you draw any inspiration or support from anyone within the U.S. government?
SOCHUA: You know, the—again, it’s not the politics of America. But when we come in to America, the diaspora in America—the Cambodian diaspora in America—we go into—we go into the Congress, to the White House, and say, this is what we need. Help us. And we have been able to find some good friends of Cambodia, and, hopefully, I hear that President Trump will raise Cambodia issue at the U.N.
How do we—how do we sell Cambodia to the U.S. administration? It’s more a challenge that we say to the administration—the U.S. administration as well as Congress—you talk about values. You talk about respect for human rights. Show it to us. We will fight, but stand with us. Somehow, so far, the United States is taking the lead in this international campaign to save Cambodia.
How do we do it? Also, I think because of our determination we don’t have—we don’t put the United States politics into our politics because the United States is actually—if we put it in—bring the United States into our platform we’ll be in big trouble because Hun Sen is—wants exactly that. So we put human rights and democracy into our own context.
STONE: Thank you. I want to go to Nina, right next to—
Q: Thank you. Hi. My name is Nina Schwalbe. I’m a member of the Council and I worked in the camps on the border in the ’80s.
And my question actually follows up on Khadija, relating to the role of Thailand, in fact, and how they have—kind of your perspective on their current relationship with Hun Sen as well as with your party and the extent to which they let you do organizing and work within, given the changes also over the past decade in Thailand.
SOCHUA: Thailand is not our friend, although we are neighbors. But Thailand needs over—we have about 1.5 million Cambodian migrant workers in Thailand. Thailand needs cheap labor from Cambodia—very, very cheap labor. Thailand—the government of Thailand—the military government—has told us many times if you contact any political party in Thailand, you will be deported.
We have very close—my colleagues are there. They can be deported every day, any day. If I—when I go to Thailand, I go under radar. I use my U.S. passport and I don’t connect with my colleagues because they are followed. Their apartments are raided every other day and the—Thailand has deported Cambodian refugees back to Cambodia—a few months ago, deported. So Thailand is not a safe place for us, politically speaking, because of the military regime.
STONE: Thank you. I want to go to Michael.
Q: Yeah. Hi. Michael Paller. I’m with the Open Society Foundations and I manage scholarship programs for Cambodian graduate students as well as fellowship programs for faculty members teaching in universities in Cambodia.
And over the past three years, we’ve seen a pretty steady decline of applicants, especially women, from Cambodia and I was wondering if you had any insight or to think about how we can increase our pool of applicants there.
SOCHUA: You do—
SOCHUA: —have candidates, yes?
Q: We have—yeah, we have—
STONE: You could do some business here, I feel like.
SOCHUA: We can do—(laughter)—exactly. I’m desperate. I’m desperate for—in fact, I have—I have connected with your colleague and said give scholarships to the students who were in jail and that just got released. They lost years. They want to come back—go back to school and they want to be safe, and they need to be safe, and especially for women we need to encourage them and say it is safe, because Hun Sen has made it so unsafe to be in politics, to be with any social movement, to be with America and open society. Yeah.
So we have to say, again, it’s about human rights and democracy, and we need to pool—make that pool of students, of scholars, and scholarships very strong and build it up for the years to come.
STONE: That’s great. Hopefully, you can speak after as well. We have about seven minutes left so I’m going to actually take a couple questions in a bunch and then have Sochua answer those together as a group.
Why don’t we start, quickly, with Jonathan?
Q: Hi. My name is Jonathan. I work for an organization that supports human rights activists in Cambodia so I’m not going to reveal the organization.
But I wonder if you could speak to the future of the CNRP both inside and outside the country, and whether the CNRP is seeking any official recognition as an exiled government from democratic governments.
Thank you very much and thanks for your comments.
STONE: Thank you so much.
I’m going to go over here to, I believe, John. If you want to share your question, briefly, and then we’ll get one last one.
Q: Yes. I was in the Navy. We thought we might actually have a war with Cambodia and the—our warship was peopled by the U.K.’s forces. Thank God we didn’t have to do what we were prepared to do.
But my question—you mentioned—what—can you tell us something about what our working-level people in the U.N. and elsewhere in the U.S. government—are they—how well informed are they and what, if anything, are they doing about the U.S. impact—
Q: —on your two groups?
STONE: Thank you. And then, David, if you want to share your question.
Q: Sure. Thanks. I was very struck by your comment that you’re continuing to deal with the legacy of the Khmer Rouge, and just for full disclosure, I spent a year as a secretary general’s special representative on the ECCC on the Khmer Rouge, trying to sort this problem out, back in—a decade ago.
So my question is, really, if you might give a few words about the work of the ECCC and dealing with the legacy of the past—how effective that’s been. I have my own views, but I’d be very interested to hear yours. And Cambodia has, still, a strong civil society, which I think you represent very well. How do we engage or how does the civil society engage to address these legacies of the past? Because, as we know, without transitional justice and a number of other steps being taken, even if you move to the next step you’ve got a huge legacy to deal with. So I’d be very interested in your views on that.
STONE: OK. Great. Thank you so much. I also want to recognize my colleagues from the Oslo Freedom Forum but I’m going to defer to the member questions, if that’s good. I asked them to ask questions if we were a silent room. But we’ve been very engaged today. So thank you for that.
Why don’t we answer these three really wonderful questions? Jonathan had a very specific one talking about the knowledge, as well—from John—about the U.S. government officials, how informed are they. And then this very specific question at the end about the legacy of the Khmer Rouge.
SOCHUA: There’s one thing you—we will not do—government in exile. No. We are the official representatives of the—of the people. We didn’t lose an election. We won an election. Show us that we do not represent the people. So if we go in, we now transform ourselves into a government in exile, that means the international community will get very, very confused—which government in exile?
Our strength is that we represent the people of Cambodia—the forty-four percent. There are three million voters and more—that, strategically, if we go in as a government in exile, we’ll lose even the support of the people inside. We—the word—our party is called Rescue. It didn’t—we did not choose that word just like that. Cambodia needs to be rescued inside out from the legacy of the Khmer Rouge.
How do we deal with the legacy of the Khmer Rouge? We have not—we never did. We didn’t deal with the legacy of the Khmer Rouge for the past thirty years, even though we had the Khmer Rouge Tribunal. You don't just put three people of the Khmer—top leadership of Khmer Rouge on trial while two—close to two million people were killed. It was genocide.
So to undo that, there’s nothing but to rework this society, and the more you lose the time, you lose every single moment, every single day, you lose the inspiration, the aspiration, the hope of the people, and China will take over. That’s why civil society movements—that’s why your institutions, showing that in the—that outside of Cambodia people care about Cambodia and not just—we don’t just work with governments.
It is important to work with civil society, with institutions—independent institutions, think tanks. We had to deal with ASEAN. It’s easy, actually, with the Western countries but with ASEAN, that has a tradition of noninterference, it is extremely difficult—extremely difficult, even with Japan or Malaysia that just got elected, after 61 years of fighting for democracy.
John, you talk about the U.S. Now, earlier I spoke about Cambodia and the U.S. Now I’m going to talk about the U.S. in the world. I think it is really, really unfortunate for the U.S. to pull out of the U.N. Human Rights Council.
STONE: Mmm hmm.
SOCHUA: You can’t do that. You devalue yourself. How can you go into the world, the global community, and be proud and speak about human rights and democracy? You can’t do that. I think I hear something about the International Criminal Court. They want to pull out as well.
You can’t do that. You leave this huge space for China. China loves it. It’s not about the U.S. It’s about global democracy. It’s about the whole world, and I am really torn when I come to the U.S. to speak, whether I speak—this is being very honest, OK. (Laughter.) This is free will, right—free speech. I always—I always get—I turn my tongue around many, many times before I can speak, even though I’m not in Cambodia; I’m in the U.S.
But you really—at the end of the day, it’s about five years, ten years, twenty years from now. Do you want the Nazis to come back? This is what’s happening, and what are we doing? If it is not about courage from every single world leader, and every single world leader who does not stand up for democracy and human rights, shame on them, and they should be shamed no matter who they are.
As much as we need the United States to help Cambodia, but the quality of leadership, the courage of each world leader, has an impact on the world community, on global democracy, and then when we talk about it, all democracy, whatever politics, whatever, it comes down to what a woman has to face every single day—that she had to sell her body, her land—every single day.
When does it stop? That’s the point. Sorry. I got carried away. (Laughter.)
STONE: Powerful words. Please join me in thanking Sochua for her time today—for a powerful hour together. (Applause.)
Sochua, are you willing to stay after for just a couple minutes if other people have questions? Great. Thank you for being so gracious about that. Thank you so much for voting with your feet and coming to Women and Foreign Policy programming here at CFR so we can keep bringing incredible speakers to you. Have a wonderful rest of your day. Thank you so much.
This is an uncorrected transcript.