After 17 years in exile, Sochua returned to a war-battered Cambodia in 1989. To her dismay, the country she loved as a child had changed dramatically; it was now plagued with poverty and riddled with landmines. Phnom Penh had become a destination for sexual predators who exploited vulnerable young women and girls.
Devastated, Sochua spoke to local women and was quickly consumed by their stories. She knew things had to change, but someone had to step up and lead. Armed with their accounts, Sochua took it upon herself to fight for the rights that had been stripped away from these women. Soon she became a prominent voice in the women’s movement of Cambodia and a symbol of national progress.
Sochua worked within human rights networks to promote peace and to advocate for the inclusion of strong provisions protecting the rights of women in the 1993 constitution. Cambodia had a history of relegating women to the margins of society. It was Sochua’s mission to change that.
In 1995, she attended the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. It was there, after hearing Hillary Clinton assert, “women’s rights are human rights, and human rights are women’s rights,” that she made the decision to run for public office.
After three years of campaigning, Sochua won a parliamentary seat representing Battambang province in the National Assembly.
Soon afterwards, she was asked to lead the Ministry of Women's and Veterans' Affairs. Ironically, she was the first female to hold the position and became one of only two women in the cabinet.
“There is a saying in my country: ‘Men are gold, but a woman is just a piece of a white cloth.’ The implication is if the gold gets dirty, it can be wiped clean, but a white cloth, once it is stained, it remains that way forever. We have to change that.”
- Mu Sochua
As minister, Sochua campaigned widely for gender justice throughout Cambodia’s remote villages; she focused on ending violence against women and halting the exploitation of female workers. To achieve these goals, she helped draft a national law against domestic violence, negotiated an agreement with Thailand to curtail human trafficking in Southeast Asia, and launched a campaign to engage NGOs, law enforcement officials, and rural women in a national dialogue.
To reframe the negative social perception of women, Sochua knew she had to confront Cambodia's traditions, head-on. She poured her efforts into a public relations campaign, successfully promoting a new saying:
“Men are gold, but women are precious gems.”
In Cambodian government, there are more than 1,000 local bodies called communes, each representing a small collection of villages and cities. In 2002, the country held its first commune elections, which Sochua saw as an opportunity to get women involved in politics. Traversing the country, she urged women at the grassroots level to run as candidates for their local commune. With this encouragement, 25,000 women ran for office. Over 2,200 were elected.
On January 22, 2004, Sochua faced a crisis of conscience. Union leader and opposition party founder Chea Vichea was murdered in what many believe was a political assassination by the Cambodian government. Sochua stepped down from her position as minister, citing corruption within the government.
Eager to stay politically involved, she contacted opposition party leader Sam Rainsy and joined his party that same day.
2005 brought recognition to Sochua’s efforts. Vital Voices honored her with the 2005 Global Leadership Award for Human Rights, recognizing her work to combat human trafficking and violence against women.
Later that year, she was one of only a thousand female nominees for the Nobel Peace Prize. Despite the accolades, Sochua acknowledged that her work was far from over.
In 2005, Sochua won a seat in parliament under the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP). At this time, women constituted only 10% of parliamentary seats. And, as one of the opposition’s top leaders, she encountered constant threats and intimidation.
One of these confrontational forces was Prime Minister Hun Sen, who in 2009 publicly derided Sochua in a nationally broadcast speech. In response, Sochua announced she would sue the prime minister for defamation. The prime minister filed a countersuit, claiming he had been defamed by Sochua’s accusation. The Cambodian courts sided with the prime minister and ruled against Sochua. Her parliamentary immunity was voided and she narrowly avoided prison time. Her immunity would not be restored until three years later.
In 2011, Sochua was elected President of the SRP Women’s Wing. Under this new title, she strengthened women’s networks in Cambodia and mobilized voters for upcoming elections. Sochua's mission was to raise women's voices both in office and in the voting booth.
“[Mu Sochua is] part of a new generation of women who are working their way into the political systems of countries across Asia and elsewhere, from local councils to national assemblies and cabinet positions.”
- “Crusader Rowing Upstream in Cambodia,” New York Times, February 2010.
“I strongly believe in a life free from fear and violence. My approach to peace has always been through building voices and forces with various groups, either at local, national, regional or international levels.”
- Mu Sochua
July 2012 delivered a more united opposition front as the Sam Rainsy Party merged with the Human Rights Party to form the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). Sochua immediately assumed a top leadership role as Director General of Public Affairs. She continued to spend nearly 80 percent of her time walking the campaign trail, meeting with her constituency, and fighting for their rights.
In January 2014, a demonstration by garment industry workers ended in violence when military police fired on protesters, resulting in at least six deaths and the hospitalization of dozens. In response, the Cambodian government closed Freedom Park – the focal point of demonstrations against Prime Minister Hun Sen’s regime – and surrounded it with razor wire to deter demonstrators. Freedom Park had been the only place in Phnom Penh where protests were allowed. By barring access to the park, the government effectively restricted legal protest in the capital.
The lotus plant grows in muddy water, its flowers blooming atop the darkened surface. In Buddhism, this image symbolizes finding purity and faithfulness above deleterious murk.
Since the Freedom Park ban, Sochua has led a series of non-violent demonstrations to restore access to the public grounds. Armed with a bouquet of lotus flowers, which she hands to her opposers, Sochua acts as a peaceful buffer between protesters and police authorities.
On July 14, violence erupted once again despite non-violent intentions. This time, several municipal security guards were beaten by protesters. Sochua and seven other members of the CNRP were arrested and charged with insurrection and incitement of violence. They were held without bail.
“We never incite, never endorse violence.”
- Mu Sochua
After a week in maximum security Prey Sar prison, Sochua was released. Her time in prison left her more determined than before. She heard the stories of women inmates who struggled to access the justice system and worried that they would never be heard.
“There is no peace without justice. There are no human rights without freedoms of speech and assembly.”
- Mu Sochua
Today, Sochua is still a member of parliament, and a watchdog for government transparency and accountability. She remains a fierce advocate for Cambodia’s most impoverished and disenfranchised citizens, walking the campaign trail from village to village, drawing international attention to Cambodians’ basic needs — safe shelter, security, and opportunities for their children.
“I do it because I want to know them. I need to know firsthand what it feels like to lose a child to disease or malnourishment or human trafficking. I want to understand what a family goes through when their property is seized by the government. The only way that I can represent my people is to know what it is like to walk in their shoes. I do not know any other way to lead.”
- Mu Sochua
Photography — Sharon Farmer
Photography — Charlotte Pert
Photography — Philip Skoczkowski
Photography — Micky Wiswedel
Photography — Ben Woods
Videography — Georgia Court