C AMBODIA is set to get its first Minister of Women's Affairs - with a woman at its
helm - but Mu Sochua's welcome to politics has been a rough one.
A series of letters opposing Sochua's appointment, personally bitter and vitriolic
in their wording, have been circulating in recent months. Their signatures are hard
to verify - and at least some people named say they never signed it - in what appears
to be a concerted smear attack on Sochua for reasons which are unclear.
Sochua - whose Funcinpec nomination as Minister has been endorsed by both Prime Ministers
and the Council of Ministers - is awaiting final clearance from the National Assembly
when it reconvenes later this month, for her to take the position.
In November, the assembly voted to upgrade the Secretariat of Women's Affairs to
give it Ministry status, and to appoint a woman as Minister. Previously, the Secretary
of State for Women's Affairs, the top official overseeing women's policies, has been
a man, Keat Sokun.
Sochua, currently an adviser on women's affairs to First Prime Minister Prince Norodom
Ranariddh, was the founder and former president of Khemara, the first NGO set up
Sochua declined to make any comment about the letters opposing her appointment, but
women's groups have expressed surprise and anger at the treatment dished out to her.
A handwritten letter signed "a group of Cambodian women", dated Mar 8,
has been circulated to National Assembly members asking them not to vote for Sochua
to get the position.
Attached to the letter was another one, dated Jan 29 and addressed to Second Prime
Minister Hun Sen, describing Sochua as "ambitious" and someone who "always
looks down on the Cambodian women."
Similar letters, including one in October purporting to have been signed by 70 people,
have been sent to Ranariddh's Cabinet.
Cabinet spokespeople said efforts were made to trace where the letter had come from
but failed to locate anyone who had signed it.
Similarly, it was hard to identify the signatures on the Jan 29 letter, which did
not state the full names and addresses of the writers.
The Post was able to contact three people whose names were included, but who denied
having signed it. The name of one person on the list, a senior Cambodian human rights
official, was misspelled.
Chouk Chhim, president of the Cambodian Women's Association, whose name was also
included, said she never signed it and did not recognize her purported signature
on the paper.
"Most of these names do not exist or the person who wrote the letter just used
their approximate spellings," said one staff member from the Ponleu Khmer organization,
where Sochua used to be adviser.
Ung Yuork Khorn, director of the Amara organization - who, along with Sochua, is
the subject of accusations in one letter - said no-one should take the letters seriously.
The First Prime Minister's Cabinet also rejected the complaints in the letters.
"We are not indifferent but we have to make a judgment on the contents and on
what proof these documents provide," said Cabinet chief Ly Thuch . "We
can't say these letters provide any serious proof."
Men Sam Em, a CPP MP and deputy chair of the National Assembly commission on women's
affairs, said she had no idea where the letters were coming from.
Men Sam Em, a CPP MP and deputy chair of the National Assmbly's Commission on Women's
Affairs, said CPP was well aware that the ministerial position was a Funcinpec one.
She said she herself did not want the job.
Im Run, the CPP Under-Secretary of State for Women's Affairs, who is named in one
letter as a possible alternative choice to be Minister, said she had no such ambitions.
She said the Council of Ministers made a good choice in picking Sochua, and the people
behind the letters were those "who are not brave enough to say openly what they
Koy Veth, director of the Khmer Women's Voice Center, said the letter campaign was
against "not only Sochua but women in general."
"When a man is nominated, there are never these kind of questions asked,"
Pok Nanda, director of the NGO Women for Prosperity, said: "I would not be surprised
if the letter was written by a man."