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Hope drives protests over Boeung Kak development site

Embattled community continues to fight for land titles

Hope drives protests over Boeung Kak development site

Tep Vanny holds a photo of herself inside the small shop she used to run before becoming the leader of the Boeung Kak protest movement (photo by Abby Seiff)

Abby Seiff and Chhorn Chansy, Phnom Penh

March 19, 2014

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For the women of Boeung Kak, there are few things more energizing than the sight of police officers.

“When I first started protesting, I was in the front line of the protesters and was shocked by an electric baton. It made me very angry and I decided to come more,” said Yorm Bopha, 30.

Over the past several months, protests by the embattled community have stepped up. Most mornings, Bopha can be found on the front line of a demonstration shoving up against a riot police shield and shouting at an officer, or pressed up against a street blockade yelling at supporters through a megaphone.

“For us, we’re never shocked or scared. When we see cruel violence in Cambodia, it makes us stronger and more active,” said Tep Vanny, 34 who is the group’s de facto leader.

As she speaks, a breeze blows through her expansive front yard. Sitting at a wooden table beneath one of Vanny’s framed human rights awards, another protester, 50-year-old Hong Sokheng, has just echoed that sentiment.

“When I first went out to protest, I wasn’t scared because I was ready,” Sokheng said.

“I told the police and security guards: you should be arresting Lao Meng Khin,” she said, a reference to the ruling party senator who owns the development company the community has been fighting.

For the past three years, these women and a core group of about 15 others have been engaged in a protracted land dispute with the Cambodian government and developer Shukaku, which was granted a 99-year lease in 2007 to develop a prime patch of real estate in the heart of Phnom Penh. To do that, the senator’s company was permitted to fill in a 225-acre lake and evict around 4,000 families living in the surrounding 100 acres.

Eased in its dealings by the fact that most families lacked land titles due to mismanagement of a World Bank titling program, the company swiftly disposed of the bulk of the population, paying paltry compensation or offering poorly suited housing some 15 miles out of town.

After years of fighting, about 650 families whose houses have not yet been destroyed have managed to get land titles. The group is still battling for the final 76 titles, and a guarantee of sufficient onsite housing for the entire titled group.

“I think we’ll be successful. If we didn’t have hope, we wouldn’t be able to protest,” said Vanny.

Apart from the titles, they have made gains far beyond what might have been hoped for when the dispute began. The World Bank admitted culpability and froze lending to Cambodia, in part due to the Boeung Kak lobbying. They have secured guarantees of onsite housing for a significant chunk of those remaining families. And in a country where land disputes have been rampant for years with hundreds of thousands affected, this small group has managed to make the topic an ongoing high-level discussion internationally.

A famous face both here and abroad, Vanny has won awards for her activism, met then-U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and given talks in at least half a dozen countries. During a recent interview, she juggled text messages from a contact in the United States along with a growing queue of local and foreign journalists, barely pausing her rapid-fire replies.

Before Boeung Kak lake became synonymous with government corruption and development agency failures, before it became Cambodia’s most well-known land dispute and an issue routinely brought up by foreign leaders, it was simply a very, very good place to live.

Not all, but many of the Boeung Kak protesters had or have large, immensely valuable properties that they had lived in for decades. A number were married to police officers, and Sokheng even counts a powerful ruling party official among her relatives. Often described by the media as “impoverished,” many of these unlikely activists were in fact exceedingly comfortable.

Sokheng owned a 9,000 meters-square building with 40 rental rooms. Each month, she and her husband would earn $1,000.

“We had a good income and it was easy to help our family,” said Sokheng, who has been living with her daughter ever since she was evicted and her home destroyed without compensation in 2012.

Sokheng estimates the value of her home would have been $1,500 per square meter. That’s a rather conservative estimate - commercial real estate in some prime areas has reached $6,000 - but even at the lower estimate, her home would have been worth $13.5 million.

Vanny, a police officer’s wife, had a small shop that she operated outside of her spacious home. Bopha sold food products and her husband had a salaried job; with the pair earning extra income by renting out six rooms in their large, two-story house.

“It was nice then. We had more money to support the family - enough to send my son to a good school and eat well. Every Saturday and Sunday we could go out and have nice meals out,” said Bopha. “My husband went to work and had a salary; I stayed at home and sold food products.”

Nowadays, there is no time to run the shops. Bopha’s husband left because of her activism and Vanny’s husband lost his job because of it.

“It’s a lot of change, it’s like a new page. Life is very different,” said Vanny. On the table, in front of her, lies a photo she retrieved of her standing in front of the shop circa 2009.

“At that time, I respected the police, the military police. I thought they were people who worked hard to do good things for the nation. But when we saw them during the evictions act like we’re the enemy, it changed everything. Before, I thought all people were good. Now I know some are bad some are good, so we have to be careful and make sure we understand the situation well.”

Rather than discourage, the work and its attendant dangers have galvanized the Boeung Kak women.

“I wasn’t scared of the police; I was just upset about the political situation. And when I went to prison, I was just angry and I came out angrier,” said Vanny, who was arrested with 12 others in 2012, serving a month in prison after being convicted with obstruction of public officials and occupying state land.

Most of the core group have done stints in jail, though few for as long as Bopha, who spent 15 months in prison after being convicted of masterminding an attack on a motorbike-taxi driver - a charge widely believed to have been fabricated.

“Before I was arrested, I thought that when my land issue is finished, I’ll stop protesting. But after the arrest, after that injustice, I decided that I’ll continue protesting for others facing injustice,” said Bopha, who was labeled a Prisoner of Conscience by Amnesty International during her imprisonment.

“Before, I was very supportive of the government,” said Sokheng. “I could not imagine I would ever be in politics. I thought we would live in peace and safety. What I thought at that time was completely wrong.”

Today, Sokheng is $10,000 in debt after taking out school loans from usurious money lenders. Banks, she pointed out, would hardly loan money to someone whose home was in such a precarious position.

To make ends meet, her husband has taken up metalwork, but the money is irregular and a fraction of what they once earned.

“Sometimes he gets so upset just thinking about his lost land.”

Kicked out of the police force, meanwhile, Vanny’s husband has become a professional framer. Surrounding each movie poster featuring Vanny, each award certificate and photograph is his delicate, filigreed wood frames.

“Sometimes my husband wants me to stop. Sometimes he thinks it’s too dangerous. But I feel like I can’t step back, even if we were to break up,” Vanny said. “I feel like I have an obligation now.”

Vanny and the others said they will continue to assist other embattled communities in the future and help the downtrodden, women in particular, to understand how to stand up for their rights.

None can imagine going back to their previous lives.

“We were like the frog in the well before,” said Vanny, using a Khmer proverb. “It was dark and we thought it was big.”

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