Global Leadership Awards
Leadership in Public Life Award
Vital Voices Global Leadership Awards 2013
“People need to stand up and challenge for their rights”
Anyone who has worked in a developing country in the last decade will have heard a similar story. Developers seize a valuable piece of land, throw the existing community out, and after protests ebb away, a new development arises: apartments, a mall, restaurants and stores for the newly wealthy.
The people of Boeung Kak Lake, in Cambodia, have tried to rewrite the script. With Tep Vanny, a dedicated and energetic young woman, as their spokesperson, they challenged the developer and the Cambodian government, and they have refused to go quietly.
“People need to stand up and challenge for their rights,” says Tep Vanny.
Boeung Kak Lake
Boeung Kak Lake is a small patch of water on the edge of Phnom Penh. Or rather, it was. In 2007, Shukaku Inc., a company owned by a senator of the ruling Cambodian People's Party and a Chinese corporation, won a 99-year lease to develop the area. Developers began filling it in with sand, without regard to those who lived locally.
The attractions to a developer are obvious. The area is close to some of the important parts of Phnom Penh, close to embassies, schools, hospitals. But for the 4,000 displaced by the developers – with scant compensation in terms of land or cash – it was a devastating move.
“The authorities only offered $8,500 as compensation for us to move away, or we could be given a new house. But the new house is 25 kilometers outside of Phnom Penh, with very poor infrastructure. It is far away from schools and work,” she told a journalist last year. “No one wanted to move away but villagers were threatened by the use of force and sand was pumped into our homes. Men with rifles came to my house and threatened us. They wanted us to move out in a week’s time.”
A few of the local residents decided to stand their ground and protest. In 2011, the League of Boeung Kak Women staged a peaceful demonstration outside a government building in Phnom Penh. Police and security officials broke up the demonstration. Four women were charged with “obstructing public officials” and “insults.”
Tep Vanny was a latecomer to the area. When she got married in 1993, her husband’s parents bought them a home in Boeung Kak Lake. They had begun to build a home with their two children. But she felt she had to act, as part of her community’s struggle, and she became more vocal after the long term leader of the women gave up on the cause.
“We can do more than take our husband’s clothes, wash them, and hang them,” Vanny told Boeung Kak’s women. “Are we strong? This is a woman’s struggle.”
Attracting international attention
In May 2012, 13 of the women, including Vanny, were convicted and sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison. She and her friends have been smart about attracting outside attention. Their struggle attracted plenty of international media – the BBC, The Economist, The Washington Post and others. The sentences were reduced, but the Boeung Kak Lake women continued their fight. Vanny and her friends led a demonstration of over a thousand protesters during the ASEAN and East Asia Summits held last year in Phnom Penh, and it attracted more attention.
This is a big and serious issue, as The Economist has reported. “The arrests had been condemned swiftly by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch,” it said of the original arrests. “They too are concerned about the prevalence of land-grabbing, which is made all the uglier by allegations of corruption and the deadly use of force. According to a local human-rights group called Licadho, foreign interests—owning mines, plantations, real-estate development firms and the like—now control more than 22% of Cambodia's total surface area.”
International institutions have taken note. "Until an agreement is reached with the residents of Boeung Kak Lake, we do not expect to provide any new lending to Cambodia,” said the World Bank in 2011.
“Land rights are an increasingly contentious issue in Cambodia, and the women have become a symbol of the wider national struggle,” says the Washington think-tank CSIS. “The implementation of land laws is complicated by corruption and the long-term consequences of the Khmer Rouge’s elimination of property rights during their 1975-1979 rule. Until these issues are addressed, the Boeung Kak 13’s efforts will continue to offer a powerful rallying cry to their countrymen.” Because of Cambodia’s violent, fractured history, it isn’t easy to say who owns what, and the rich and powerful have disproportionate influence.
Before the land grab, most residents in the Boeung Kak Lake community had a comfortable life. Today, however, they are living in a slum that floods during the rainy season. The small convenience store that Vanny ran is now headquarters for the community activists.
So that the government has to take notice
In addition to be honoured by Vital Voices, Vanny recently received the Golden Butterfly Award as the activist portrayed in the film, “Even a Bird Needs a Nest” at the Movies That Matter Festival in The Hague. Being recognized for their struggle is important and valuable to the Boeung Kak Lake women, but they need more help. “I am very happy to be recognised, it means that our community is being heard,” she says. “Along with my happiness I am still upset, for right now one of my colleagues is still in detention.” Youm Bopha, a fellow leader of the group, remains in jail, sentenced to three years imprisonment for ‘intentional violence’. Amnesty International says the charges were fabricated and has designated her as a prisoner of conscience. On March 27th of this year, Bopha lost her appeal.
“What motivates me is the injustice, to be strong for my community. But it's not justice only for my community,” says Vanny. “It's for everyone, every community affected by development. I want to show that everyone needs to understand their rights so that the government has to take notice.”