By Marwaan Macan-Markar
BANGKOK - Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen is savoring another victory. His latest triumph: a string of verdicts against an opposition lawmaker that apparently guarantee him the liberty to insult women and get away with it.
His target, however, refuses to be silenced even after her latest showdown with the premier, who celebrated 25 years as the Southeast Asian country's leader this year. Nor has she changed her views about the Supreme Court, which upheld a lower court's decision against the outspoken parliamentarian in a bizarre case that has also put the country's judiciary on trial.
The superior court's verdict on June 3, including a fine of 16.5 million riel (US$4,000), was the third judicial ruling against the 54-year-old Mu Sochua. In August last year, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court found the former minister of women's affairs guilty of having insulted Hun Sen. In October 2009, she lost again following an attempt with the Court of Appeal.
"I will not pay the fine. They can confiscate my property. They can even take me to jail," a defiant Mu Sochua said in a telephone interview from the Cambodian capital. "I think it is a serious mistake for the ruling party to push this case at a time when the country needs reform of the judiciary."
"The judges were under trial from the beginning," she observed of the case that began early last year, when she first filed a defamation case against Hun Sen. It followed a speech he had delivered in the Khmer language, where he referred to her as "cheung klang" ("strong legs"), a demeaning term for women in the country.
But the powerful leader of the Cambodian People's Party (CPP) turned the tables on the parliamentarian from the opposition Sam Rainsy Party (SRP). The ruling party stripped Mu Sochua of her parliamentary immunity to help Hun Sen file a counter defamation charge against her. Adding insult to injury, a court dismissed the original defamation case Mu Sochua filed against the premier.
Hun Sen's latest judicial triumph has broader implications in a country struggling to get back on its feet after a 1991 peace deal brought an end to decades of civil war. The timing of the superior court's verdict, in fact, has triggered questions about the role Western donors have in aiding Cambodia's reconstruction.
On June 3, while Hun Sen was celebrating the silencing of one of the country's foremost champions of democracy, free speech and human rights, international donors pledged US$1.1 billion in aid for this year, up from last year's $950 million.
The largest aid package in Cambodia's history came at the end of a two-day donor conference in Phnom Penh, lifting the pressure on the Hun Sen administration to push ahead with five areas of reform. Three areas spelled out in 2004 by donors included changes to fight corruption and increase accountability, legal and judicial reform, protection of human rights and public administration reform.
That little had changed over the years was highlighted by a coalition of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) on the eve of this month's donor meeting. "Serious actions, such as court convictions of corruption cases, remain selective or are limited within certain political considerations," stated the NGO Forum on Cambodia.
The financial windfall for the Cambodian regime, despite a record of defamation lawsuits against opposition parliamentarians, intimidation of the media, a growing list of corruption scandals in the natural resources sector and stripping the environment for private profit, has disheartened civil society groups.
"All the talk by donors about strengthening democracy and human rights in Cambodia is just words; it is not meaningful," said Hang Chhaya, executive director of the Khmer Institute of Democracy, which seeks to champion democratic values in the Southeast Asian state. "The Mu Sochua verdict was a slap on the face of freedom of speech."
There is a growing belief that Hun Sen's ability to get away with bullying his opponents while being propped up by the donor community has more to do with China's spreading influence in Cambodia. Beijing's US$1.2 billion package in aid and soft loans to Cambodia in December last year confirmed the battle for influence being waged in a country where one-third lives in absolute poverty.
China gave Cambodia the funds shortly after Phnom Penh deported 20 Uyghur refugees from Xinjiang, a province in northwest China. Both the United Nations and the United States criticized the expulsion, saying it violated international refugee law. The Uyghurs belong to a Turkic-speaking Muslim minority in China.
"The donors have taken into account China's economic role in Cambodia," said Ou Virak, head of the Phnom-Penh based Cambodia Center for Human Rights. "There is a lot of self interest at play."
Some analysts admit that Cambodia's international donors, who include Japan, Australia, the US and the World Bank, fear that if they walk away China will consolidate its control, leaving Western donors with little influence. Such an act would be deeply embarrassing for the donors for another reason.
"Cambodia has become the poster child of post-conflict reconstruction since the 1991 Paris Peace Accords," said Shalmali Guttal, senior researcher for Focus on the Global South, a Bangkok-based regional think tank. "Donors couldn't abandon it now for that would mean admitting failure."
"The Mu Sochua case reveals the lengths they are prepared to go," noted Guttal. "The donors are willing to stamp on their own benchmarks for reform in order to be in the game in Cambodia."