Outspoken Sam Rainsy Party Youth Wing leader Soung Sophorn, 25, last year courted controversy by filing a premeditated murder charge in December against Prime Minister Hun Sen, police chief Tuoch Naruth and Phnom Penh Municipal Governor Kep Chuktema over the tragic Koh Pich Water Festival bridge collapse in 2010, which claimed 353 lives. Claire Knox spoke to Sophorn about human rights abuses, apathy amongst young Cambodian voters, and his own motivations.
What motivated you, as a young person, to be active in politics?
I was a teenager, about 15, when I became a bit angry about the political state of Cambodia: corruption and injustice. I saw huge problems within our society, such as the legal system. I read a lot at that stage, and talked to people about the government; at that stage you could say I was politically neutral. I tried to understand what was wrong and right, what was corrupt. Most people in Cambodia have a grasp of what is wrong and right but are too fearful. I joined the SRP because their leaders were well educated to lead the party in the future, and I trusted their policies. I saw many incidents, such as the evictions, where they knew right from wrong.
Are enough young people involved and engaged in politics, or even simply voting, in Cambodia?
Some of the youth don’t care. Yes, I see it. We’re trying our best to encourage and foster an interest in politics though, an interest in current affairs and important issues. Recently, we held a forum at the Phnom Penh Royal Railway Station, many people turned up. We focused on youth and drugs, gave lectures there, to give an understanding of the causes and effects of drug use. The central reason young people choose not to vote is a lack of education, because families are poor. They don’t question things. Many are encouraged not to question things by their parents. They place so much emphasis on material things, on phones and new things. I just want to alert them to what is happening and to look around.
What needs to be done to change Cambodian politics?
We need an independent system for the National Election Committee, and the media must be independent. When the election results come out, all media need to publish results and make things transparent in provincial areas.
What do you think about the elections this year? Will they be fair?
They are not fair at all. Unless they have a completely new system for the election committee. They are controlled and contrived. There are about 30,000 young people active with the Youth Wing of the SRP all over the country and that is encouraging. They support them with health care and education. And (the Youth Wing) is sponsored (financially) by Khmer supporters living overseas. The youth have the power to develop this country into a modern and democratic one.
The Phnom Penh Municipal Court has dropped the lawsuit you filed. How do you feel about this?
I feel deeply insulted and offended for the people whose lives were affected. The Koh Pich disaster was a grave irresponsibility. I am a leader of the youth wing department of our party, of 30,000 young people from around the country and I recognise that I have responsibilities for these people. To not have held anyone accountable is devastating.
You’ve been a passionate defender of Boeung Kak Lake protesters, some of whom were recently jailed for three years. How do you feel about the verdicts?
The [verdict of Yorm Bopha] is incredibly sad. But there is nothing new here, is there? It is a huge blow to human rights. But I was not surprised when they got jail. To see the people, these leaders that have made a stand, to have them receive this treatment is appalling.
Hun Sen has now threatened to counter sue you for defamation. Are you worried you may be jailed?
I am not afraid for myself, no. I am devoted to this, to what I believe in, and I’ll sacrifice what I have to for what’s fair, even my life.