Freed Cambodian activist plans to shun limelight

After two years in jail for a peaceful protest, Tep Vanny wants to be a normal citizen again
Freed Cambodian activist plans to shun limelight

Tep Vanny relaxes at her sister's apartment in Phnom Penh on Aug. 21 after her release from jail. (Photo by George Wright)

Tep Vanny, Cambodia's most recognized activist, was preparing her mosquito net for another restless night in the overheated cell she shared with more than 140 women in Phnom Penh's infamous Prey Sar prison when four guards walked in on Aug. 20.

"They usually only come at that time if someone is sick. They do not come in randomly — only if there is an emergency. Then they said 'Tep Vanny, prepare your clothes and go home,'" she told in her sister's apartment in the capital on Aug. 21.

"I said, 'How can I prepare because some of my clothes are still hanging?'"

Despite initially being wary of the authenticity of the order, her fellow inmates started congratulating her. "People inside were very happy for me and they started cheering. I told them that their day will come, so don't be hopeless," Tep Vanny says.

It was only once she arrived back to hundreds of friends, family and well-wishers in her Boeung Kak community an hour later that she realized she was free after more than two years. "Then I realized my dream was coming true," she says.

Tep Vanny carries her belongings outside Prey Sar prison in Phnom Penh on Aug. 21 after she was released by a Royal pardon. (Photo by Ang Chhin Sothy/AFP)
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Psychological strain

Tep Vanny rose to prominence around the turn of the decade as thousands were forced off their land after Boeung Kak lake was leased to a private developer with close ties to the government. Her activism soon started winning her plaudits from across the globe but also the wrath of the Hun Sen regime, leading to her being arrested and jailed on numerous occasions before being released. But this time was different.

Tep Vanny was arrested on Aug. 15, 2016, while peacefully protesting in her eviction-hit neighborhood in Phnom Penh. She and a scattering of other activists were calling for the release of five jailed rights officers and for a full investigation into the shooting of Kem Ley, a popular political commentator who many suspect was slain in a state-sponsored hit.

Soon after the demonstration had started with protesters throwing rice at effigies of court officials, police stormed in and bundled Tep Vanny and her friend Bov Sophea into unmarked police cars.

While Bov Sophea was released days later, Tep Vanny was kept inside as authorities began dragging up long-dormant cases. She was given six months over a scuffle that broke out with security forces in 2011, while another 30 months were added for allegedly inciting violence at a protest outside Prime Minister Hun Sen's residence in 2013.

Ly Mom, a former activist from Boeung Kak, filed but later withdrew a third complaint accusing Tep Vanny and others of sending her death threats. Despite Ly Mom's attempts to scrap the complaint, Tep Vanny claims prosecutors are continuing to investigate it.

She tells of her devastation at being branded a criminal and placed behind bars once again for her activism.

"It really impacted on my mental health. People who committed crimes didn't want to be there, so imagine how it feels if you've done nothing wrong," she says.

"I sometimes wondered whether I should continue my life. I always try to do good things and never commit crimes but always end up suffering.

"And my family, how these feelings impact on them. Sometimes I felt so frustrated that I wanted my spirit to be outside of the prison but not my body. I always prayed to Buddha."

Tep Vanny is escorted by prison guards at the appeal court in Phnom Penh on Feb. 15, 2017. On this occasion, she was appealing a six-month sentence handed down in 2016. (Photo by Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP)

Despite her psychological struggles, Tep Vanny says she tried to stay busy inside prison and speaks with excitement when pulling out around half a dozen sacks full of jumpers, hats and bags she knitted behind bars.

"I knitted a lot. I was in there for two years after all," she laughs before pointing to eight cardboard boxes full of letters from supporters she received from across the globe while in jail.

Tep Vanny says she didn't socialize much with other prisoners, most of whom were locked up on theft or drugs charges but who included some serving lengthy sentences for serious crimes including murder. She cooked her own meals if she could get her hands on meat, vegetables and fruit on the prison's black market.

Sometimes she would watch TV with her inmates, but the prison guards always had the say over what news channel or dramas they could watch.

"If we'd been allowed to choose, there would have been too much fighting," she says. "When it was too overcrowded, it was difficult and there was fighting about where people were sleeping and people getting clothes confused. Occasionally it would boil over into fist fights."


Stepping away from activism

Tep Vanny's arrest was followed by widespread crackdowns on opposition politicians, independent media and critics of Hun Sen's regime ahead of July's general election. The Cambodia National Rescue Party, the only realistic threat to Hun Sen, was outlawed and leader Kem Sokha sent to prison on charges widely perceived as politically motivated. The ruling Cambodian People's Party took all 125 National Assembly seats in the sham ballot.

With Hun Sen's total grip on power assured, it appears he is now releasing the pressure valve on some political prisoners. During the interview, a friend called Tep Vanny to inform her that Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin, former reporters for Radio Free Asia, had been bailed after being jailed on espionage charges last year.

While she is now free, Tep Vanny says she plans to step away from activism once the last remaining family receives a land title in Boeung Kak. 

"When a solution is found, we will stop," she says. "My children haven't had a comfortable life due to me and it's time to look after my mother. I need to find my own goals. I just want to be a normal citizen now. In 10 years I've lost almost everything — this is an experience for others to see."

Sitting beside Tep Vanny, 14-year-old daughter Ou Kongpanha spoke of her joy at having her mother back. "I thought it was a dream but it's not a dream, it's real life. I wished I could see her at home and it came true," she says.

Despite the pain of the last two years, Tep Vanny says she doesn't regret standing up for her community but admits she's looking forward to embarking on a life of relative normality.

"I'm still proud I never gave up on the struggle. It taught me how to understand my society," she says. "Now I need to find a market to sell my bags."

A file image of Tep Vanny accepting her Leadership in Public Life award during the Vital Voices Global Awards ceremony at the Kennedy Center in Washington on April 2, 2013. (Photo by Nicholas Kamm/AFP)

This article was first published 22.8.2018.

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