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Q&A: Thy Sovantha, the teenager who stirred up a political storm

Thy Sovantha, 19, has more than 200,000 followers on Facebook.
Thy Sovantha, 19, has more than 200,000 followers on Facebook. Scott Howes

Q&A: Thy Sovantha, the teenager who stirred up a political storm

A 19-year-old political activist who amassed hundreds of thousands of followers on social media has been at the centre of controversy this week. Bennett Murray heard her side of the story.

Controversy surrounding Thy Sovantha, a high school student and political activist who rose to fame on social media last year for her anti-government rhetoric, has generated an online firestorm that has spilled into the real world.

With more than 200,000 Facebook followers, the 19-year-old’s posts are so widely read that she even provoked an official response from the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party last Saturday after she incorrectly posted on Facebook that Sam Rainsy had filed charges against Hun Sen in the International Criminal Court (Rainsy had actually announced that a nonaffiliated US-based activist was planning to file charges). A party statement emphasised that she is not associated with the CNRP.

Sovantha’s life has also been physically threatened. The week before, a leaked copy of her passport application appeared on Facebook.

Opposition supporters march in the capital before a recent ban on assembly was implemented.
Opposition supporters march in the capital before a recent ban on assembly was implemented. Charlotte Pert

It was accompanied with threats to scald Sovantha to death with acid for her pro-CNRP views.

While opposition party representatives declined to comment on Sovantha’s case on Wednesday, only stressing that she is not affiliated with the party, Kem Monovithya, CNRP deputy head of public affairs, referred questions to Eng Ponlork, co-founder of the Facebook page I Love Cambodia Hot News, where Sovantha had been a frequent poster before starting her own page titled Thy Sovantha. Although he only offered hearsay as evidence, Ponlork told 7Days that he is positive that Sovantha is a government spy.

“No one can hide the truth forever,” he said in a telephone interview from the US, where he is currently based. “Her dignity will fall day to day when that information breaks to the public.”

But Kim Sovannarith, another co-founder of I Love Cambodia Hot News, said that Sovantha meant well but is being manipulated by a pro-government friend, Phe Sovannarith, who ostensibly renounced the ruling party.

Sovannarith was out of the country and could not be reached for comment.

Sovantha spoke to 7Days about her family’s rise from poverty, her social media career and the maturation of her politics.

Tell us about your upbringing?
I moved to Phnom Penh around 2002. When I was in Kampong Cham, my parents were gold sellers. When I was a kid, they always communicated with each other, like my grandparents, and they talked about politics, but they could not show their knowledge to everyone, because they were afraid. My parents are now traders. We just order from China and sell to the factories.

Why do you support the opposition?
When I turned 18 years old I had to choose one party that has a good leader in that party, to lead us for development. I support the CNRP, because they can develop our country. For our students, our farmers, our police, our workers, I can agree with [CNRP]. Especially in Cambodia, the farmers grow rice, so they want rice expensive because they really work hard. And right now, rice is cheap, so it is not cool.

What can you accomplish by supporting the opposition?
Some people call me a little girl, so I want to show them that I am young, I am a woman but I can show my braveness. So you are men, you are older than me, so you have to be brave and join altogether for our country.

Why do people accuse you of being a spy?
I don’t know, but for me I still respect [them]. I will continue my actions and continue to follow my mind and follow my country. I think one day they will understand. I don’t have to judge other people back.
No matter how they are confused, I know what I am doing I am doing for our country, so no matter. Everything I do [is] not for the power of CNRP. I do not want any power from CNRP, but I want to show my braveness and support to CNRP.

They say that one of your friends and fellow activists, Phe Sovannarith, supports the CPP. Is that true?
I’m not working with him. CNRP people hate him because before he worked for CPP. I told him “last time you are wrong, you are bad. Before you supported CPP. But now you have changed. I support you to continue your good action. It is good for our country.” I want to tell all CPP supporters to wake up. He stopped supporting Mr Hun Sen, so for me, if you’re wrong, you can change your mind to be a good person.

What do you say to those who call you a spy?
If you judge other people without evidence, how do you feel when everyone judges you? They say I have a modern car, modern technology to use, and I am too young. I say I reject Hun Sen, they don’t believe my actions. They say maybe I am a spy. But are [accusations] good for CNRP or good for CPP? That is my question only.

Last week, someone posted your leaked passport application on Facebook and threatened your life. Are you scared?
No. I chose that I wanted to become a politician, and I know already it is dangerous, but I think it is the only choice. It is better to die for your country than to live a selfish life.

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