“People need to stand up and challenge for their rights.” That is the idea that Tep Vanny, a young Cambodian leader, has made her rallying cry as she challenges the government and private corporations who want to take away the land that she calls home.
In 2008, Shukaku Inc., a Chinese-Cambodian development outfit, was granted a lease over the Boeung Kak Lake area in central Phnom Penh. Shukaku began pumping sand into the lake, intending to build a “satellite city” with shopping malls, skyscrapers, and apartments. Two-thirds of Boeung Kak’s residents fled, many having received threats and intimidation. They suffered severe hardship, with insufficient compensation or resettlement to a site on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.
Around 800 families are refusing to leave their property, and, like them, Vanny has stood her ground. As part of a group called the League of Boeung Kak Women, she has helped organize protests, drawing attention to the cause and exposing alleged government involvement. It is a group of women of all ages, with Tep Vanny, 32, as their de facto spokesperson. The group came together because they believed that it would be more difficult for the government to attack and brutalize women than men.
Since late 2010, the Boeung Kak women have staged many protests outside many government institutions – the National Assembly, the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Interior, the Phnom Penh city hall, and the Phnom Penh court house. On May 22, 2012 the women organized a peaceful demonstration on sand where the company had been pumping. Police and security officials broke up the demonstration with violence. Thirteen women were charged and imprisoned for one month and three days, Vanny among them. They were eventually released, but late in 2012 another activist, Yorm Bopha was arrested and is still in prison.
Vanny and the Boeung Kak Lake women have been successful in gaining exposure in the world’s media for their community and their struggle. It is a familiar theme: the poor struggling against a government and a corporation that do not seem to care. Vanny, an outspoken, energetic woman, has helped to ensure that the world also sees individuals, their suffering and their courage, and hears their voices.
The Boeung Kak movement is a community effort, bigger than any one person. “I am very happy to be recognized — it means that our community is being heard,” says Vanny. But, she adds: “along with my happiness I am also upset because right now one of my colleagues is still in detention.” Vanny has given over her house to be headquarters for the community activists, and the cause is now her life. “I want people to know that we need to fight for our rights,” she told journalists last year. “It might not benefit us now, but it will benefit our kids.”