Tep Vanny: The Woman from Village Number 22

“The way [Cambodian] women demonstrate is not physical. They use their voices. It is a collection of voices to spread awareness. For men, there is more violence. When someone commits violence against them, they feel like they must fight back, but it is high risk because they can be accused of violence. With a woman’s strategy, we can endure it better. [Our] strategy reduces violence,” said Tep Vanny from her home in northern Phnom Penh.

Vanny hopes to change Cambodian peoples’ thinking about criticizing the government because she is one of the many people threatened with eviction at what was previously known as Boeung Kak Lake. Ten villages used to surround the now sand-filled lake, but three have left, leaving seven, says Vanny. Her address is village number 22.

“People are in darkness. We explain to them to get a positive result – [to get] compassion and kindness. We fight for everybody. We have made a commitment for life. All Khmer have rights, freedom and power. Your leader is your servant. We need to stop walking the path as before. They did not know their rights [then] and didn’t know how to use them.”

Vanny has been invited to receive former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s Vital Voices leadership award for 2013 in Washington, D.C this spring. Vital Voices Global Partnership Vice President of Communications, Margaux Bergen, explaines, “One of our central aims as an organization is elevating the global profile of women who relentlessly advance progress in the face of tremendous risk. In our 15 plus years experience, we have learned that there is a significant value to media attention and the international exposure of a leader and her plight.”

Vanny’s plight has become a common occurrence in today’s Cambodia as Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) into the land has skyrocketed. Exact data is hard to come by, as the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries released the last report on investments into land in 2006, according to a German research organization (GTZ). In that year, 30 land concessions were granted to foreign companies. About half of them were Chinese, while the rest were Vietnamese, Thai, South Korean, and from the U.S.

Vanny’s house was given as a wedding gift in 2006 by her husband’s parents. They had bought it “in gold” in 1993 after the local currency structure collapsed from the long civil war. Vanny registered it at the Ministry in 2006, but a year later, a Chinese firm bought the land around the lake. This land deal coincided with the 2007-2008 global financial and food crisis, which made land a sought-after commodity for hedging against future crises – either as an investment or for growing food. In the case of Boeung Kak Lake, the investment was for a modern condominium complex and the lake was pumped full of sand in 2008.

International donors have traditionally been strong advocates against human rights violations, but the changing flow of funds has weakened their bargaining power. FDI has surpassed foreign aid in the last decade. China took the lead in overall FDI at 40 percent in 2008, followed by new players from Kuwait and Qatar, according to GTZ.

The World Bank froze its funding over the widely publicized lake dispute in 2011, but this has not halted the Chinese-backed project. Those protesting the eviction proceedings are still being arrested and imprisoned.

Tep Vanny sitting in her home. Photograph courtesy of the author.

Though most evictees say they have land titles, they are not compensated with market rates or even at all, a violation of Cambodia’s Land Law. Advocacy groups like the Coalition for Agrarian Reform and Rural Development (ANGOC) see grassroots groups as crucial to challenging corrupt governments.AGNOC’s research reported that the top five percent of landowners controlled 70 percent of Cambodia’s land in 2003 and were acquiring land at a rate of two percent per year. Southeast Asia has now become second to Africa for land grabs as a result of the 2007-2008 crises.

Cambodian authorities have blamed nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and the opposition party for inciting unrest in communities, but Vanny disagrees. “The government transforms us into what we are now, not ‘the opposition.’ NGOs and their partners only help us with the legal stuff,” said Vanny. “The NGOs calm us down, make sure we are legal.”

Unrest is common in Cambodia as evictions ramp up, but grassroots organizing is only in its infancy, according to a study by the law department at McGill University on access to justice for Cambodian citizens. The study notes that when the judiciary system was created by United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) between 1991 and 1993, access to justice was built top down, rather than from the bottom up. The study contends that this has contributed to a situation where the elite are able to access the courts rather than farmers and peasants, discouraging grassroots initiatives.

“During Pol Pot, if an officer said you stole, you could be arrested. We, 13 [activists], were arrested, though the courts never investigated the charge [of illegal use of land] against us.” Rights groups petitioned for their release after their conviction in May 2012. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton interceded on their behalf to get the female activists known as “the Boeung Kak 13” released the next month.

“My parents said [during the Khmer Rouge years] it was kind of like a prison with no walls. Even now, they can squeeze us at any time. They can arrest us at any time. They watch us and follow us.”

Vanny shows me a photo album from a trip she took to Siem Reap and displays pictures that were taken from the back of her tuk tuk (motorcycle taxi), showing an entourage of stone-faced men in a car tailing her vehicle.

“This is serious. I don’t think a lot of people know about this. Our activist Bopha was arrested and no one knew. She was arrested on her way to look for her name at the Ministry. I want people to know we need to fight for our rights now. It might not benefit us now but it will benefit our kids.”

“You can make a comparison to the Khmer Rouge time to those living in Udong [a district in the Kampong Speu province]. They are living like animals,” said Vanny, referring to the Borei Keila evictees who were relocated January 2012, 45 kilometers outside Phnom Penh. The remote countryside location has no facilities, hospitals or schools nearby. The community’s children have had to drop out of school.

Vanny’s parents also live in the rural Kampong Speu province, an area now famous for sugar cane plantations, though previously it was well known for small-scale farmers harvesting eco-friendly palm sugar. They are also now facing eviction for the second time and a ruthless sugar plantation tycoon has claimed their land. The plantation owner has cut down all their fruit trees, which were a source of food, with no compensation.

“This man is evil,” says Vanny.

Tep Vanny’s village in north Phnom Penh. The lake was filled with sand to make way for condominiums for a Chinese company. Photograph courtesy of the author.

In her parents’ case, the company is not foreign-owned but its exports go to the European Union. Sugar cane has become a valuable export, owing to the EU’s Everything But Arms (EBA) agreement, which allows Least Developed Countries (LCDs) duty-free exports for non-military products. The EU has now become Cambodia’s second largest trading partner. Activists are petitioning the EU to boycott sugar because of the rights violations.Vanny used to have a pretty good life. Her husband was a civil servant and worked for the Ministry of Defense, while she sold groceries. Villagers fished from the lake and harvested plants to eat or sell. The area was also popular for tourism, bringing business to the residents. However, civil servants cannot go against the government without fear of losing their positions. When they did not accept the below market-value buyout, her husband lost his job. David Welsh of the Solidarity Center, an NGO that advocates for labor rights, said that civil servants in Cambodia have no labor representation. Welsh explained, “A controversial provision which was to include government employees in the [pending] Trade Union Law was struck down.”

Vanny does not plan to give up. “[We thought], why don’t we use the Buddhist strategy? When Buddha was about to be enlightened, he faced a lot of demons but resisted through meditation. This is our strategy. We use our voices – non-violent activity – to gain sympathy and compassion. If you use violence to overcome a problem, it is only temporary; it will come back with violence.”


The WIP Contributors: Tep Vanny: The Woman from Village Number 22.

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