Mu Sochua picks me up at my hotel at the crack of dawn. My first impression is of being put at ease. It’s as though she’s unaware of the reputation that preceded her.
As the Land Cruiser pulls away, she urges the driver to maintain a steady speed and to be cautious about overtaking other vehicles on the narrow highway that stretches north from Battambang to Banteay Meanchey province – until it is timely to do so.
She surprises me – and the driver – when we stop for breakfast by urging him to join us after he had humbly taken a seat at another table. As he sits, he is included in our conversation, erasing any sense of the hierarchy that had compelled him to sit alone.
This divide – class – is among the many that Mu Sochua is taking aim at in the run up to the Commune Council elections in June with a disciplined, energetic strategy that aims to see the Sam Rainsy Party double its seats, from its current 2,660 to 5,320.
These local elections are a critical opportunity for the SRP to promote change from the grassroots up, she says. “It takes democracy at the local level to maintain people’s participation,” she tells me. “Access to healthcare and the police force are also controlled at a commune level.”
We discuss her strategy for the election over bowls of noodles; her amiable, down-to-earth manner almost conceals her political brilliance and relentless determination.
The SRP campaign must be focussed, professional and tactical if it is to succeed, she says.
I tell her I know this from my experience working with a small opposition party in the UK. We could offer no quid pro quo; no guaranteed access, influence or the promise of a seat in a safe constituency. Success hinged on hard work, enthusiastic volunteers, goodwill and a platform of well-crafted, credible and inspirational policies. A clearly mapped out route from opposition to leadership, with each step tangible, was necessary.
Sochua and her party have homed in on three key election pledges, and she speaks passionately not only about the promises, but about the need to deliver. The SRP intendes to tackle local corruption and land disputes, while upgrading rural infrastructure.
“This is not a poor country; it is a badly governed country,” she says, summing up the core message that she believes is beginning to resonate with the country’s youth, who make up a majority of the population. Sochua believes they are becoming increasingly disenfranchised with an ageing leadership that she says rules by fear.
The ruling Cambodian People’s Party is losing its grip on the younger generation, she says, adding that this is beginning to unnerve the CPP. “The motto is of the so-called ‘January 7 people’ is ‘you owe us your second life’. That is not a slogan, but a threat,” she explains, referring to the CPP. Voters are looking for development, better healthcare and less poverty, she adds. “The CPP promises peace, but there is no real peace when poor farmers are selling their children to pay for medical treatment.”
In a bold move, the SRP is putting women atop its candidate list, as well as focusing on neighbourhood issues. It has penned campaign songs, made videos and developed its own catchy ring tones for mobile phones.
Sochua points out that these tactics are necessary because most broadcasting networks overlook the SRP, stifling its message before it even gets out.
This new “tech” approach is also tailored to youths, she says.
As head of the party’s Women’s Wing, Mu Sochua was instrumental in the decision to encourage female candidates, arguing that embedding equality in politics would help ensure that women are not left behind by economic and social development and that their issues are not ignored.
And on this Saturday morning we are headed to a training session for women candidates.
After a two-hour drive we arrive at the SRP headquarters in Banteay Meanchey: A clapboard building in a sun-drenched courtyard where 50 women from all over the province have assembled for a candidacy-training session.
The headquarters is like every party nerve centre I visited in the UK. Signs are stacked outside against the building, a row of old computer equipment sits inside, paperwork springs up in piles and posters are plastered on walls.
The atmosphere keys up when Mu Sochua arrives, but she is swift to ensure she does not become the centre of attention, moving among the women and encouraging each to take centre stage. The women are young, old, urban and rural, a cross section of the province. There is a sense of camaraderie but also relief among them as they shed their isolation to encourage one another.
Two young women catch my eye. I’d expect to see them at a pop concert rather than a political strategy session so I ask them why they are there, “I want the system to change so that if I apply for a job, there will be no nepotism, more openness and more equality,” says Nang Chantha, 20.
“I also want development that is better spread across the country so everyone can benefit,” she explains, adding shyly: “I want a new life for me. I want to be a leader.”
Because she and her friend are too young to stand as candidates they will observe the polls and report irregularities. I ask them whether they expect to witness fraud and their response is an unequivocal “yes”.
“In the past we know that those who are not registered to vote have done so, there have been cases of impersonation, and vote buying. It is not done behind the scenes but blatant,” Chantha says.
Commune representatives say they face intimidation. “It is very hard,” Svat Vary tells me. “I have been threatened physically and the ruling party has also tried to pay me to defect. If they don’t win with threats, they will try and sweet talk you too.”
Once, while campaigning door-to-door, she was forced to turn back from a village by a group of men who threatened to beat her. Still, the 45-year old refuses to stop campaigning. “I am determined to see Sam Rainsy as prime minister and to see him fully implement [our] policies.”
Sochua says it’s critical not to dwell on intimidation. “If I let the candidates talk about their experiences of intimidation, we would be here all day,” she says. “It is important that they vent a little, but I say that you should live above fear, or it dominates your life and they win.”
However, with the border still heavily militarised since the conflict with Thailand, she is aware of the particular threats faced there, especially by women opposition candidates – it’s literally the “Wild West”, she says.
As well as being deputy leader of the party and head of the SRP women’s wing, Sochua is an ambassador with Vital Voices, the organisation set up by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to empower and promote women leaders in business, politics and civil society.
Sochua has travelled around the world working with women in political campaigning techniques.
Last year she visited Myanmar’s Aung Sang Suu Kyi. Mu Sochua shared her experiences with Suu Kyi about the lifting of sanctions after years of conflict, about Western aid and slow national development.
It is can be tempting to compare both women. Both respond to hostility and political might with a dignified elegance that catches one off guard.
Sochua’s high profile and international connections are informed by the years she spent living in the US, where her family fled as refugees in 1972. She may have left Cambodia physically, but says that while away she studied, worked and organised for causes back at home.
After returning she was, for a time, minister of women’s affairs before exiting the coalition government in 2004 due to what she described as its rampant corruption.
On the day I joined her, I watched as she brought methods practised in Washington and Yangon to Banteay Meanchey to sharpen her candidates’ campaigning skills. She encouraged them to develop tight, targeted messages and not to be afraid to deliver them with conviction.
Repeatedly, she encouraged the women to define the most important commune issues, identify solutions and convey these as tangible realities.
Even the games they played to lighten the mood were imbued with strategic planning.
“We can win,” she tells me as she takes a break from the sweltering heat. In 2002 the party won 1,300 commune seats, which were more than doubled in 2007. Mu Sochua says the party can double the number again this year, which would give it almost half those available nationwide.
At the commune level, SRP candidates are pledging to stamp out the corruption that allows local officials to overcharge for the issuing of documents (birth certificates, marriage certificates, and deeds), which further impoverishes the poor or leaves them without titles for their land, or even proof of age.
At the end of the training session, Mu Sochua plays a song by the Messenger Band through speakers set up in the courtyard outside. The girl band comprises garment workers who sing about land grabs, the abuse of sex workers and development gone awry. Their tune is hauntingly beautiful and many of the women standing in the sun are moved to tears.
This song is why we are here, Sochua explains.
When the music stops she keeps moving.