Choung Chou Ngy hopes his political career is more successful than his legal one has been.
As an attorney, Choung Chou Ngy was given some of the hardest cases in Cambodia, a country that under strongman Hun Sen routinely stifles dissent. Courts appointed him to represent opposition political leaders, social activists and poor landholders who had run afoul of the autocratic government.
It was a tough job. So much so, that Chou Ngy jokingly refers to himself as the “lawyer who never won a political case” — a self-deprecating moniker that says more about the state of civil society in Cambodia than his qualities as an attorney.
Now, Choung Chou Ngy, who says he is in his 50s, is trying to fight his country’s antagonism to human rights from another angle: He announced he will run for Parliament as a member of the opposition Candlelight Party, which has emerged as the main challenger to Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party.
“As a lawyer, there are restrictions by profession, but as a politician, I am free to see people,” he said, meaning he gets to make his case before prospective constituents rather than a judge.
What won’t change, Choung Chou Ngy said, is his focus on Cambodia’s courts, which ruled against his clients in almost every trial, although he said his record as an attorney improved in cases that didn’t involve bribes.
“I clearly see that I have a very important role to play in protecting activists, protecting those who dare to protest for justice, for democracy in Cambodia, so my role is important in helping to promote Cambodia to respect the law or the rule of law,” he said.
Choung Chou Ngy said he faced a number of difficulties in his legal career. He often had to dip into his own bank account to help present a client’s case. And he said he sometimes faced personal threats as he defended social activists and Cambodians fighting to retain their land against politically connected developers.
He himself was sentenced to two years in prison and fined 3 million riel (U.S. $725) by the Kandal Provincial Court for his defense of a group of villagers locked in a land dispute. He is accused of taking his clients out of detention in a local police station. He denies the allegation, saying the villagers were free to leave. The case is pending.
Choung Chou Ngy has also defended some of Cambodia’s most prominent opponents to one-party rule, including Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha, the former co-founders of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), which was disbanded by the Cambodian Supreme Court in 2017 at Hun Sen’s request. The decision allowed the CPP to fill every seat in the National Assembly in the 2018 election.
Sam Rainsy now lives in exile in France, while Kem Sokha remains on trial for “treason,” a charge widely viewed as politically motivated.
In 2021, the U.S. State Department said Cambodia faces “significant” human rights issues, citing credible reports of arbitrary detentions, severe restrictions on free expression, and “serious problems with the independence of the judiciary.”
‘That is his heart’
Lao Mong Hay, a political activist and director of the Khmer Institute of Democracy, praised Choung Chou-Ngy ‘s courage and generosity.
“He took his profession as a lawyer to help those in need. That is his heart,” Lao Mong Hay said.
Choung Chou Ngy was born in Preah Prosop village in Kandal province, which surrounds the capital Phnom Penh in Cambodia’s southeast. His parents are farmers. He worked as a teacher for two years after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in physics from the Royal University of Phnom Penh.
Choung Chou Ngy then studied law and received a master’s degree in public administration before becoming an attorney in 2004. He said his mother told him to be responsible, to not abuse his position, and to fight for justice.
“It is necessary to have people who dare to sacrifice themselves, sacrifice for the sake of peace,” he said.
A need to meditate
He has been involved in politics previously, though not as a candidate. Before he worked as an attorney, Choung Chou Ngy was a member of CNRP’s board. In addition to the ban on the party, 118 of its members were blocked from participating in politics for five years. That prohibition was lifted on Nov. 16, allowing Choung Chou Ngy to run.
It has always been risky to challenge Hun Sen’s rule, but Choung Chou Ngy is re-entering politics at a particularly fraught time.
The CNRP ban precipitated a crackdown on dissent that continues. The prime minister, who has ruled Cambodia for nearly four decades, seems intent on having his son, Hun Mamet, succeed him. With the 2023 election eight months away, Hun Sen already has threatened to ban Candlelight over comments Rainsy made to RFA disparaging King Norodom Sihamoni.
Choung Chou Ngy said he coped with his disappointments as an attorney by meditating with his wife, who is also a lawyer, in their rented home in Phnom Penh. The practice helped the couple maintain a level of serenity in the face of the injustices they witness, he said.
As a member of Parliament, he says he would have more tools with which to fight back. One goal, he said, is to promote a legislative mechanism to punish corrupt judges and prosecutors like the ones he and his clients faced in court.