Both are figureheads of the country’s opposition. Both have been convicted in court cases they have labeled political attacks by the ruling party.
But for SRP president Sam Rainsy and party lawmaker Mu Sochua, the similarities end there. Over the past year, one has stayed abroad while a court sentenced him to prison for uprooting border posts along the Vietnamese border, while the other returned to Cambodia to be convicted of defaming the prime minister and risked jail for then refusing to pay a court ordered fine.
Both have stood by the reasons for their different actions. But some observers say the very different paths the two have taken in their legal battles may turn Ms Sochua into the new face of the opposition.
“The people think that Mu Sochua made a better decision. She dared to stay and face [her case],” Human Rights Party President Kem Sokha said.
“Her decision was better than Sam Rainsy’s, who decided to go abroad.”
Ms Sochua’s legal troubles began in April 2009, when she decided to sue Prime Minister Hun Sen over a nationally broadcast speech in which the premier made a derogatory remark that Ms Sochua believed was directly aimed at her. In a countersuit, the premier accused Ms Sochua of defaming him by claiming that he had defamed her.
After dismissing Ms Sochua’s case and proceeding with the premier’s, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court found her guilty in August and ordered her to pay a $2,125 fine and $2,000 in compensation. The Supreme Court upheld the decision on appeal last month.
Having refused to pay the fine by last week’s deadline, Ms Sochua faced the possibility of a six-month jail term, which now seems unlikely as the court has ordered the money be taken directly from her lawmaker’s salary.
Despite her legal loss, Ms Sochua has racked up a moral and political victory by standing up to what most consider a politically cowered court system, Mr Sokha said.
“She won. She succeeded against the intimidation and the threats to put her in jail,” he said.
“She proved herself, that she is determined to make justice prevail…and she has been consistent in her determination,” said Yeng Virak, director of the Community Legal Education Center. “People admire her for her ability to stand up to all this.”
In the wake of her court case, said Koul Panha, director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia, “I think ordinary people may consider Mu Sochua more strong than [many] politicians,” maybe even Mr Rainsy.
Whether Ms Sochua won or lost, he said, “she has encouraged people to challenge the political power, [shown them] that they can challenge and not always be afraid.”
But Mr Panha cautioned against strictly comparing her court case with Mr Rainsy’s, which carried a heavier jail sentence.
Charged with inciting racial discrimination and damaging public property for removing from the ground temporary border stakes in a rice field last October, the Svay Rieng Provincial Court convicted the SRP president in absentia in January and handed down a whopping two-year jail term plus $2,000 in fines to the opposition party leader.
Mr Rainsy has defended his absence from the country as a chance to build support for the opposition party and its human rights agenda abroad. Since the conviction, Mr Rainsy has crisscrossed Europe and the US, meeting with politicians, rights groups and supporters.
While some have rebuked the party president for staying overseas while two villagers arrested for the same border post incident spend a year in jail, Mr Panha said Ms Sochua’s rise has not necessarily come at Mr Rainsy’s expense.
“Some people believe it is not necessary [for leaders] to sacrifice themselves, because there are other ways to achieve their goals,” Mr Panha said.
But neither is this the first time Mr Rainsy has watched a Cambodian court convict him from abroad, noted Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights.
In 2005, Mr Rainsy spent a little over a year in self-imposed exile after being charged with defaming the prime minister and Prince Norodom Ranariddh, then president of Funcinpec and the National Assembly. Tried and convicted in absentia, Mr Rainsy earned a royal pardon after expressing his “regrets” to the premier. And in shades of his current absence, Mr Rainsy said he had gone abroad to “reorganize the forces that are available to the party.”
If Ms Sochua’s decision to face her accusers at home has not made her the moral center of the party, Mr Virak said, “I think it’s moving in that direction.
“People will start to question why Sam Rainsy needs to leave the country all the time. I think Mu Sochua has shown that standing firm might be the right thing to do,” he said. “When the dust settles, people will start asking these bigger questions.”
And unlike Mr Rainsy, he added, Ms Sochua has forced the judiciary—or more accurately the executive, as many critics of the courts believe—to decide whether it really wanted to jail a leading, and very popular, both nationally and internationally, opposition figure, risking international censure.
Mr Rainsy spared the government that decision by staying out of their reach and far from his base, Mr Virak said. “This is the government having its cake and eating it too.”
By contrast, he said, officials appear to be working hard to keep Ms Sochua out of jail.
“If they put her in jail, they will lose [face],” Comfrel’s Mr Panha said. “I think they’re very aware of this.”
In the meantime, CCHR’s Mr Virak said, Ms Sochua’s highly publicized struggle with the court has at the very least brought her name and message to corners of the country’s universities and villages—where the SRP has typically had a modest foothold—that knew little of her before.
“That on its own is a positive for the party,” he said.
Whether the SRP—and Cambodia’s opposition as a whole—gains from that in the long run will depend on whether she is allowed the recognition and political space she deserves, he added.
Mr Virak said there was little chance of Mr Rainsy losing leadership of the opposition party. But if Ms Sochua and her supporters start to feel frustrated by a limited role, he wondered whether that could sow the seeds for a further split in Cambodia’s already fractured political opposition.
“If [party leaders] are not unified, it might be the beginning of disenchantment within the party,” said Chea Vannath, former director of the Center for Social Development, though she has heard no such rumblings up to now.
“So far it seems Mu Sochua always considers herself a member of the SRP,” she said. “I do not see any sign that she wants to distance herself from the SRP. She seems to be loyal.”
SRP spokesman Yim Sovann dismissed any talk of a popularity contest inside the party.
“We work as a team,” he said, where majorities rule.
“In the SRP, position is not important. Everyone has a role and duty to help the party and to help the country,” he said. “The popularity of anybody is the popularity of the party.”
But Mr Virak, of CCHR, said all this attention and praise for Ms Sochua might not amount to much politically.
“This upswing of interest in Mu Sochua may not last forever,” Mr Virak said. “It depends on what will come out of this.”