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Asia's daughters put dictators on notice

Written By vibykhmer on Wednesday, September 2, 2009 | 3:50 AM



September 02, 2009

By Gaffar Peang-Meth
Guest Commentary
UPI Asia Online


Washington, DC, United States, — In one respect, August was not a good month for Asia’s daughters.

It began with the death of the Philippines’ first female president, Corazon Aquino, 76, after a yearlong battle against colon cancer. Then came the Aug. 4 municipal court verdict finding Cambodian legislator Mu Sochua guilty of defaming Premier Hun Sen, because she sued him for 13 cents for defaming her in his nationally broadcast speech.

On Aug. 11th, Burma’s iconic leader Aung San Suu Kyi, 64, was sentenced to another 18 months of house arrest because American John Yettaw of Missouri swam across a lake, supposedly guarded by junta troops, and stayed two nights in her house without her permission.

In another respect, August put Asian dictators on notice.

In February 1986, inexperienced Aquino, a “plain housewife,” mother of four daughters and one son, whose husband was assassinated in 1983 for opposing Ferdinand Marcos, led the People Power Revolution that brought over 2 million Filipino civilians and political, military and religious leaders to the streets to confront with prayers and flowers Marcos’ military loyalists, backed by tanks and armored vehicles. Marcos fled to Hawaii. Aquino became Asia’s first female president.

Renowned as an advocate of democracy, peace, women’s empowerment and religious piety, Aquino replaced military rule with democracy. Her People Power inspired millions in Burma, Indonesia and Thailand. With her death Asia lost a daughter, but memories of her success put dictators on notice.

Cambodia’s Mu Sochua, a petite 55-year-old woman with three daughters, was a refugee in the San Francisco Bay Area during Pol Pot’s murderous rule that took 1.7 million lives, including her parents. With an undergraduate degree from San Francisco State University, a master’s at the University of California, Berkeley, and an honorary doctorate in law from Canada’s Guelph University, she left the United States in 1981 to work in refugee camps along the Khmer-Thai border, where she met her husband. She returned to Phnom Penh in 1989 and gave her all to advancing women’s rights.

In 2005, Sochua was one of 1,000 women proposed for the Nobel Peace Prize, and was a recipient of a Vital Voices’ Global Leadership Award for Human Rights and Anti-Human Trafficking.

In a society governed by an autocratic system that brooks no dissent from its citizens, those who challenge Samdech Decho (his title) Hun Sen must offer public apology or suffer the consequences. Sochua campaigned in opposition to the regime in power, and though civil in her discourse, was defamed by Hun Sen.

She sued him; he countersued her, claiming her suit was a form of defamation. The guilty verdict against her included an order that she pay US$2,500 in fines to the state, and $2,000 in compensation to Sen, for defaming “the long-serving premier when she tried to sue him.” Sochua expressed sorrow at the unjust outcome and said she will appeal.

At a ceremony distributing diplomas at the University of Law and Economics on Aug. 12, Sen addressed graduates, “I am the prime minister … I have an army … Let’s make clear to one another, under my order only two hours are needed to take over Phnom Penh; just try me!” In an apparent reference to Sochua, he said, “This type of woman can’t represent women.” He added, “You are not Aung San Suu Kyi.”

A day earlier Suu Kyi, who has been under house arrest for 14 of the past 20 years, was given an extended 18 months’ house arrest to prevent her participation in the 2010 elections.

In 1990, while she was under house arrest, Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won 392 out of 485 seats in the parliamentary elections. The opposing military junta threw out the result.

Her father, Aung San, Burma’s hero, was assassinated when she was 2 years old. She said her mother taught her never to hate, not even those who killed her father. Before she married British scholar Michael Aris in 1972, she asked him, “Should my people need me, would you help me to do my duty by them?” Aris agreed.

As she returned from England to care for her sick mother in 1988, millions marched in the streets to demand free and fair elections and an end to military rule. The military rulers responded on Aug. 8, 1988, by shooting down thousands. The “Massacre of 8-8-88” became Burma’s killing field.

On Aug. 26 of that year, Suu Kyi addressed half a million people at Rangoon’s Shwedagon Pagoda, calling for a democratic government. In September, she helped form the NLD and became its secretary general.

In her words, “I could not, as my father’s daughter, remain indifferent to all that was going on.

In July 1989 the junta put her under house arrest until July 1995, only to arrest her again and again. Behind a guarded fence Suu Kyi reads, listens to news, meditates and kept herself busy in the house.

Suu Kyi has never stopped fighting for her peoples’ civil rights, despite the junta’s vow to “crush all dangers threatening the state.” Suu Kyi once said, “Fear is very much a habit … People are conditioned to be frightened.” She recalled growing up as a child “afraid of the dark” – a coward, she said. But in April 1989 she walked in the middle of the road in the Irrawady Delta toward an army unit ordered to shoot her and her friends, when an army major intervened and spared her life.

Suu Kyi is now again under house arrest. World leaders again express anger. On Aug. 13, the Asian Human Rights Commission issued a statement: “Moral anger can serve a useful purpose where it generates meaningful resolve and leads to action to produce results, but where it is all that there is, again and again, it can have the opposite effect, sapping and demoralizing the very people whom it should bolster.”

It urged the global community to develop “some sense both of the role that the entire infrastructure of state plays in protecting the army’s hold on power, and of the role that the rest of the world needs to play in addressing that hold, rather than merely making statements of condemnation every time that the regime affronts global sensibilities and violates international law.”

Perhaps it will turn out that August was not a bad month after all. It may jolt men of conscience to action.
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(Dr. Gaffar Peang-Meth is retired from the University of Guam, where he taught political science for 13 years. He currently lives in the United States. He can be contacted at peangmeth@gmail.com. Copyright Gaffar Peang-Meth.)

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