Mu Sochua leading march on August 4PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (WOMENSENEWS)–Two women in Southeast Asia are setting the stage for regional change by bravely standing up to ruling governments. Both have received negative court rulings in recent days.

Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s democratically elected leader, saw her house arrest, which has been off and on since 1988, extended by 18 months on August 11. That verdict keeps her out of the country’s campaign season for elections, tentatively scheduled for March 2010.

Cambodia’s Mu Sochua, an opposition parliamentarian, received a guilty verdict July 30 in a case brought against her by Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen.

The situation: Two of the region’s most prominent female lawmakers are in trouble with their country’s rulers, who in both cases are attempting to limit or strip their power.

Women throughout Southeast Asia are watching, and blog posts from the region are drawing parallels between the struggles of these two female leaders.

The parallel has not been lost on Sochua’s opponents either: "Mu Sochua is not Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar," Cheam Yeap, a senior lawmaker for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party and a member of National Assembly’s Permanent Committee, told the Phnom Penh Post when the lawsuit was first filed against Sochua on July 21.

What are their chances of success? What will happen if they fail?

Burma’s Downward Spiral

Some see Suu Kyi’s interminable silencing by arrest as a defeat for her party and for the country, which has seen a downward spiral in per capita income over the past half century. Burma–officially called Myanmar by the country’s military government– is now considered one of the poorest countries in the world, well behind all of its Southeast Asian neighbors and on par with Nepal. The country’s greatest expense: weaponry to wage a civil war against its own people.

Here in Cambodia, leaders of the opposition, or minority, party and civil-society interest groups see these situations as conjoined.

Crackdowns against freedom of expression and democratic practice have escalated in Cambodia over the past year. Is Prime Minister Hun Sen on the offensive?

Sochua thinks not:

"Hun Sen knows that the votes that won this election were gotten illegally," she said in an interview with Women’s eNews. "He knows that if the election was fair his party would never have won. He is afraid and he is acting as if he is afraid. If he knew that the people were really on his side he would have nothing to fear from them. He would have no need to intimidate people."

Sochua both expressed optimism for women in the region and said that if real change is to occur, women must make themselves heard.

Women in Southeast Asia have little or no representation in parliaments throughout the region. They also have consistently lower literacy rates than men, with only 34 percent of Cambodian women receiving a secondary school education.

Rainsy Says Women Have Key Role

Sam Rainsy, leader of the opposition party in Cambodia, says that women from Southeast Asia, because of their experience of oppression, are far more likely to be effective in overcoming oppression.

"I think Burma and Cambodia are two similar problems," he said in an interview on August 5. "They are the same in nature but different only in intensity. In any dictatorship, the rights of the minority, the rights of women . . . are generally oppressed. So women are the spearhead of any fight to bring about democracy and to restore human dignity."

Nevertheless, he emphasized that female leaders in the region can’t create change alone and emphasized the crucial harm foreign governments play by providing military or humanitarian aid to a country under a dictatorship with few or no regulations.

"We would be much encouraged if we see that the world knows the real situation in Cambodia," Rainsy said. "Cambodia is a kind of bad conscience for the world, because of the Khmer Rouge tragedy some 30 years ago. So they want to buy back their conscience by pouring money. And by pouring money without any consideration for human rights, for democracy, they actually strengthen the dictatorship like the one currently led by Hun Sen."

The day before her verdict, while I was there monitoring her court decision, I asked Sochua if she is afraid of more backlash of the type that pulled her into court last month to face a guilty verdict, which international rights onlookers have widely denounced as politically biased.

"No," she said. "I have no reason to be afraid. I have done nothing wrong. I plan to go on living my life. He (Hun Sen) is the one who should be afraid. The will of the people is on my side."

Leaders Criticize Verdict

The verdict in Suu Kyi’s case, postponed several times, found her guilty of charges brought by the Burmese government of violating the terms of her house arrest. She had allowed an American man into her home after he illegally swam across a lake and entered her compound. Suu Kyi has been held in jail or under house arrest for most of the last two decades since she won the leadership of the country by a landslide.

Leaders from around the world have criticized the verdict.

"The charges were baseless, the verdict outrageous," U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown wrote in an official statement released on August 11. "So the international community must respond to this latest injustice with a clear message to the junta that its tyrannical actions will no longer be tolerated."

Sochua is a member of parliament for the Sam Rainsy Party here in Cambodia and a renowned international women’s rights advocate. The case against her was a countersuit, responding to the suit Sochua exacted upon Prime Minister Hun Sen for using defamatory language to describe her to constituents. She appealed the guilty verdict the following day. It is not yet clear how the courts will respond to her appeal.

Stephanie Guyer-Stevens is executive producer of Outer Voices. She has been documenting female leaders in Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands since 2003.

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