Exiled for Years, Cambodian Activist Hopes for Justice

Mu Sochua lost her parents to the Khmer Rouge, but hasn't lost her will. She will tell her story after a documentary screening on Saturday at the Seabury Center.


The Cambodia of Mu Sochua's childhood was a nation of peace. The rice paddies in the north were a verdant green. The lakes were full of fish. The beaches were unspoiled. For the first time in a century, the country was independent and free.

"I look back at that childhood as a place that was heaven," she said.

But as Sochua grew older, turmoil took over. The United States backed a coup that overthrew the head of state, who was believed to be sympathetic to the Communists despite remaining neutral. The country was bombed during the Vietnam War, and a man educated in Paris began to gain power. Soon, Saloth Sar, better known as Pol Pot, became the new leader.

He instituted genocide in a country that had known peace just a decade earlier.

In 1972, Sochua had just completed high school and her wealthy parents sent her to safety in France as Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge strengthened. The parents stayed behind.

"My parents didn't want to leave. They did not think that there would be genocide," she said. "My father always said he would live in Cambodia and he would die in Cambodia."

Like so many others, her mother and father disappeared. They were never heard from again.

Sochua bears the scars of a country that has forgotten about justice. She has dedicated her life to bringing economic, social and criminal justice to a country that barely knows the meaning of the word.

"It's a scar as if you were attacked by acid and, very sadly, some of the victims will not get out because the system is not forgiving and there are no opportunities," she said.

Bringing the Fight to Connecticut

In a house not far from Staples High School, Sochua wrapped herself in a shawl to keep warm. She arrived from Phnom Penh, Cambodia's capital that rarely sees the temperature dip below 70 degrees, the day before. She spoke of a country with a modern airport, an infrastructure of roads and two million annual tourists.

"That is what you see on the surface from the outside," the 56-year-old said. "Underneath it, for a society to be called stable, you have to look at freedom, human rights, the justice system, the role of the media and then you have to look at the government at all levels."

In those areas, she said, Cambodia has not developed.

For example, if a woman is raped, she is expected to pay an exorbitant amount of money for the case to be heard by a judge. Evidence can disappear and witness intimidation is common. Property is unlawfully seized by corrupt officials, and men often have to leave the country to find degrading work since mostly women are employed in nearby garment factories.

Sochua was a guest in the home of Roberta Cooper, of the Connecticut branch of the nationwide nonprofit Vital Voices. The organization is dedicated to helping women in developing countries.

When Sochua was elected to parliament in 1998, she was a rising political star despite the inequality women face throughout the country. She galvanized other women in the country to run for office and even landed a spot in the cabinet, one of only two women to do so. While serving in office, she saw corruption firsthand and resigned in 2004, switching to the opposition party.

All of this corruption happens even though Cambodia calls itself a democracy.

"This type of democracy – there's no shape. There's no form. There's only a name," she said.

Several times a year, Sochua leaves Cambodia to raise awareness and funds for local charities. Westport is one of her stops as she heads to a forum in New York City, to the west coast for Thanksgiving with some family members and a visit to the European Union Parliament in Brussels with former President Bill Clinton.

Last week, she met with Hillary Clinton when the secretary of state visited Cambodia. Clinton urged human rights progress and justice for the Khmer Rouge officials standing trial for their genocidal crimes.

"Countries that are held prisoner to their past can never break those chains and build the kind of future that their children deserve," Clinton said from Cambodia. "Although I am well aware the work of the tribunal is painful, it is necessary to ensure a lasting peace."


After a year in a Paris, Sochua relocated to the United States. She was able to obtain scholarships and received a psychology degree from San Francisco State University and a master's degree in social work from Berkeley.

She looked for her parents on the list of prisoners held in the notorious S-21 prison, where thousands of Cambodians were tortured and killed by the Khmer Rouge. She also talked to any refugees she could find to see if they knew what happened to her parents. All of this was to no avail.

As a refugee, she spent 18 years in exile. She married and started a family while dreaming of returning the country she left behind.

"I had to survive on my own," she said. "Because of a good education I was able to put my life together."

Finally, after several unsuccessful attempts due to passport complications, she returned home in 1989.

"I left as an innocent young woman. Hardly a woman, yet still a young child," she said. "I came back a mother of two."

Event Info

The Connecticut Council of Vital Voices Global Partnership will be screening Redlight, a documentary exposing the global issue of human trafficking on Saturday, Nov. 13 at the Seabury Center, 45 Church Lane, in Westport. A dessert reception will be held at 7:30 p.m. Guests will have an opportunity to meet Mu Sochua and director Guy Jacobson, and purchase the work of Cambodian artisans. The film will be shown at 8 p.m., followed by a question and answer period with Sochua. Tickets for the event are $100 for VIP seating and the screening; $30 for all other seats at the screening; and $15 for students. Tickets are tax-deductible.

On Nov. 14 Redlight will be shown at 4 p.m. at the Ridgefield Playhouse, 80 East Ridge Rd., Ridgefield, followed by a question and answer period with Mu Sochua. There will be an opportunity to meet Mu Sochua and filmmaker Guy Jacobson at a VIP reception beginning at 2:30 p.m. at Lounsbury House, 316 Main Street, in Ridgefield. Tax-deductible tickets for the Ridgefield event are $100 for the VIP reception and the screening; $30 for the screening only; and $15 for students.


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