What impressed Sokhoeun Duong on first returning to Cambodia in 1989 was the amount of responsibility the nation’s women bore.
“Just by meeting relatives,” she said, “I can count the heads of the households, a lot of women, a lot of widows. All my cousins, second cousins, are widows. And I started to have that vision, that ambition to do something.”
That something emerged as the Neang Neak Neary Khmer, or Cambodian Women’s Party, which she formed last year. She is fielding candidates in the elections in five constituencies: Prey Veng, Takeo, Kandal, Kompong Cham, and Phnom Penh.
Sokhoeun Duong, 47, was in the US when the Khmer Rouge took power in 1975. She married a Cambodian refugee and together they opened the Angkor Wat restaurant in San Francisco, California, where they regularly hosted gatherings of various Cambodian exile factions.
“They all know me, the major parties. They all know who I am,” she said. “We’re all friends, but they all support their own parties. They’re all back to Phnom Penh now, working with different factions.”
She said she resisted then, as now, offers to align herself with other parties. She said she must remain true to her own vision. “I think this is a god-sent mission. I have to be on my own,” she said.
Her platform stresses empowerment of women, Buddhist values, and environmentally sound, sustainable development. The ideals are embodied in her party’s logo, which portrays Rum Say Sok, an earth spirit from Khmer mythology, as a young woman with water flowing from her hair.
Sokhoeun Duong stressed the relationship she sees between modern life and ancient religion.
“There is the link of that truth between the reality of our world order as we see every day, and the teaching of Buddhadharma, where the path is telling us to live a moderate life and avoid self-destruction,” she said.
She said she hopes, as an example of a woman who has become successful through business, to inspire Cambodians to be more self-reliant.
“We should use the aid from the NGOs wisely, but the important thing is that Cambodians have to learn to survive ourselves, not to depend on foreign aid, and not to depend on the [International Monetary Fund],” she said.
As a foreign-educated Khmer, Sokhoeun Duong said she feels more capable of responsible leadership than many in the present government. “We learned so much about global issues, politically, economically, socially. We come back to reconstruct our country rather than fight.”
She does not feel that westernization is a concept that should be emphasized, however.
“If we want to know ourselves we can’t look down on ourselves,” she stressed. “We have our own culture….Culture is important for values of individual, values of family, values of society. Leadership has to educate, bring back that identity, to reintegrate with Western society.”