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Reaching out to women

What drove you to become involved in the women's rights movement?

I am attached to the plight of women in Cambodia because of the women themselves

- the sacrifices they make, and how they live. Women migrate to the city, and leave

their villages. This is totally contrary to the traditions of their society. They

find jobs that pay absolutely the bare minimum, and with these wages they support

their family. They work in conditions that have admittedly improved, but these improvements

have not come as a gift to female workers. They have come from hard work, from sweat

and struggle, and from a constant effort to be considered human beings.

Are female workers subjected to social discrimination?

Women are key in Cambodia's economic development. Imagine the loss to the economy

if they vanished - over $2 billion a year and at least 300,000 jobs. Yet how does

society support [these female] workers? A pertinent example is beer girls: How does

society view these workers, as human capital or flesh? The majority of society thinks

these women are less than human. Beer girls rank lower than the garment workers -

their families' are ashamed of their employment yet tolerate it for the cash. Who

wants to say loudly, "My daughter is a beer girl?" But the reality is they

are all our daughters.

What must happen for this discrimination to end?

The trade unions - the workers' movement - need to be linked to the women's movement.

So many activists for the women's movement take the trade union movement out of the

equation - they choose very soft issues, very safe, non-confrontational issues. We

ask for gender equality, yet there is no attempt to look at the political side of

things within the women's movement.

Are women reluctant to speak out on political issues?

The women's movement will not participate in politics because people are too scared.

How many women have really spoken out for what they believe in? Why haven't they?

Fear. But in a fight you need to be guided by the principles by which you live. Unless

one has the courage to live by one's principles, one is living in fear.

The movement - the women's movement and the trade union movement - is not a political

movement in the narrow sense of being linked to a political party. But the movement

has the same essence as the Sam Rainsy Party - that same drive for change, that energy

to fight for that change.

What is an example of the SRP's "drive to change?"

I challenge Prince Ranariddh and Hun Sen to march through the Central Market in Phnom

Penh, to go to Psar Tuol Tom Pong, without a bodyguard. Go alone and explain to the

people clearly what they are about. We do this: we go out to the villages, we get

arrested for speaking and are accused of disrupting the "public order."

What public order do we disturb when we speak in a market? We try to bring to the

people the basic information that will allow them to think twice before they vote.

Even if we don't get elected, we don't care. Even if the people are just a little

empowered, can think just a little before they make a choice in an election - that

is enough... Just let us in the ring with an independent, neutral referee and make

sure the spectators have the rules explained to them clearly. If we could participate

in free, fair, accessible elections, we wouldn't mind losing.

Is the political and social situation in Cambodia improving?

There are some very good signs that the movement for democracy has taken root and

is gaining momentum. People come to Phnom Penh from very remote areas - crossing

mountains, rivers, areas littered with landmines - to get here and protest about

the loss of their land. This is a sign that people have heard about democracy - have

realized that they can protest about what is happening to them and get their voices

heard. Even illiterate women, even ethnic minorities who have not had much education,

they can now quote articles of the law. This is the true beauty of democracy; democracy

is about the grass roots.

What are the factors that are holding back change?

The ghost that haunts Cambodia is fear. We cannot change unless we get rid of that

fear. And the fear is of repression - it keeps people scared. We want national institutions

to be free and neutral. Our work is linked to the fight of the people. People have

legitimate fears, but one has to overcome these fears. It is the same for the Sam

Rainsy Party as for the trade unions: We have to stop thinking of Sam Rainsy as the

leader of this party. The leader is all of us, and the proof is that when he wasn't

here for one year we didn't fall apart.

So, in your opinion, it's the people, not the leaders, who are the key for

successful political parties and social movements?

Look at Funcinpec - they have positions in government yet they are not a coherent

piece. They're not even half a piece. What are they defending? There is no spirit

to fight for the people. It is all about monarchy, all about glory - but there is

no substance. And now there is not even glory, at the end of the day there is not

even honor.

But our fight is about justice first and foremost. To fight for justice is to get

out of the shadow, to go beyond fear, to break through threats, come out of theories,

finish the lies and really stand alongside the people.

Why did you defect from Funcinpec to the SRP?

The day I defected from Funcinpec was they day Chea Vichea was killed, January 20th,

2004. I called Sam Rainsy and I told him I wanted to be a member of his party. I

was not proud to be in Funcinpec anymore.

Funcinpec people have been killed, too. But the difference between Funcinpec and

Sam Rainsy is that we continue to fight for the soul. It cannot be forgotten. Even

if you forget, the people will not forget. How much blood, how many dead bodies,

how many people died for the cause? If Funcinpec really fought for the soul they

wouldn't be losing seats. You can't fool the voters and you can't fool the people.

The question is not about political parties and who is their leader. It is about

where you want to see Cambodia five years from now, ten years from now.

Every day there is more oppression. [The ruling CPP party] see change coming up,

change just around the corner. The genie is out of the bottle. You can't eliminate

Sam Rainsy. You can't take the microphone from Kem Sokha. You can try, but it will

be hard. You better not try!

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