By Emilie Duchesne
One of my most interesting assignments was to research Tep Vanny, Cambodia’s most famous land activist. Just a few days ago, she was finally released from prison after two years. As part of the push to get her out, LICADHO was planning to create a website celebrating her activism. Along with another intern (who luckily knew more than I do about website design, which is nothing), I got to visit CC2 women’s prison to interview Tep Vanny for our research.
While we were waiting for her, I listened and took notes while the prison team interviewed two prisoners who broke my heart. The first was a 16-year-old mother who had given birth after being incarcerated for selling drugs. Another of my projects was a legal analysis of the criminal provisions in Cambodia’s law, and so I knew she had likely been sentenced to a disproportionately long prison term for next to nothing. The prison team made sure that her baby was healthy and arranged to provide supplies for her, since they are not provided in prison. She seemed to be doing a remarkably good job with her baby despite the situation.
After speaking with her, the team asked a guard about a tip they had received that a ten-year-old boy was being illegally held in the prison. There is a law on juvenile delinquency in Cambodia which sets the minimum age for detention at 14 and also commits Cambodia to various international standards on the treatment of children in detention. When he came out, I saw how little he was and knew there was no way he had been mistaken for a fourteen-year-old.
I later did research on the juvenile delinquency act and learned that there are no enforcement provisions, and that there is also no independent monitoring. The judges who are charged with monitoring are the same people who put Tep Vanny and other activists in prison whenever instructed by the government to do so. LICADHO was only able to learn about the incarcerated boy because another prisoner had tipped them off during an interview. He was not being kept separately from adult prisoners, and his parents had not been contacted. Thankfully, the women prisoners had been taking care of him, comforting him, and giving him extra food, and the prison team was able to advocate to get him released and back to his family.
When Tep Vanny came out, all the nerves I had been feeling on the way to the prison were instantly alleviated. She is a hero here in Cambodia, and her activism has been centrally featured in at least two documentaries that I know of. Despite this, she is completely warm and unpretentious; she laughed with us, put us at ease, and thanked us for taking the time to talk to her, saying she rarely gets opportunities to speak about her activism with other prisoners.
It all started in 2010, when Vanny’s home and those of her neighbours were razed to make way for a Cambodian People’s Party senator and his powerful Chinese backers to build a commercial development. There was no consultation process; the community learned about the development when the company showed up and began destroying homes and filling the lake with sand. Vanny’s mother had been evicted in a different land grab, and so she had already seen first-hand that the government does not normally pay fair compensation to evicted people. Her activism began with going door-to-door in her community telling people about their rights and urging them to stand together. She spent the next ten years organizing, protesting, and petitioning alongside her all-women activist group, the Boeung Kak 13, until almost all the families in her community had negotiated title agreements with the government.
At this point she extended the fight to other people disenfranchised by economic land concessions and to activists who have been wrongfully jailed by the Cambodian government. She even picked up English, which she had been too poor to learn in school, so she could raise awareness internationally. Now her English is excellent, and she has spoken in front of the UN on behalf of Cambodian land grabbing victims. Her activism has been hugely successful in raising awareness about land grabbing, but at great personal cost: she has been threatened, beaten, and arrested on many occasions. On August 15th, 2016, she was arrested alone for the first time. The government had always previously arrested her alongside other activists from her community, and so many people believe she was arrested alone this time in an attempt to break her spirit.
On the night of her arrest, Tep Vanny was leading the Boeung Kak lake community in a cursing ceremony to protest the arbitrary detention of five NGO officers and an election official. It was a terrifying time for human rights defenders: following a close and highly contested election in 2013 marred by allegations of fraud, the government’s uneasy truce with civil society had collapsed into a violet crackdown with various legislative restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly, consistent state violence against protesters and strikers, and the forced closure of major independent newspapers and radio stations.
In response to this crackdown, Tep and other activists launched the Black Monday campaign of May 2016, in which various groups protested peacefully while wearing the color black as a sign of united resistance. Prime Minister Hun Sen immediately responded with a ban on “any protests in which participants are dressed in the same colour”. Hun Sen frequently alleges that foreign governments are conspiring to incite a Cambodian uprising– a “colour revolution” based on the revolutions in Yugoslavia and Serbia- when justifying violations of political rights. In the weeks that followed the ban, authorities enforced it by violently dispersing protests, threatening protesters, and banning people from posting their views online without government permission. Human Rights Watch’s Phil Robertson described the situation as “a witch-hunt against any NGO or activist who ever demanded the government respect human rights, called out corrupt officials, or organized joint actions”.
Despite the ban, Tep’s group continued protesting and even expanded their campaign in July to demand an independent investigation after a popular political analyst was murdered. Kem Ley was shot in a gas station days after publicly commenting on a Global Witness report titled “Hostile Takeover: The Corporate Empire of Cambodia’s Ruling Family”. Kem Ley’s death must have been a reminder to Tep Vanny of the risk she was running as the face of land activism in her community. According to Global Witness, at least thirteen environmental and land activists were killed in Cambodia between 2002 and 2014. But, if she felt afraid, it was still not enough to convince her to stop. Only three fabricated charges and a politically motivated arrest could finally put an end to her work.
When I met Vanny, I was struck by her kindness and intelligence. Compared to pictures I had seen she looked pale and tired, but when she spoke about her activism I recognized the Vanny I had seen in documentaries, passionately leading protests and confronting government officials. She lit up when talking about her children, who are both top of their classes in school. She told funny anecdotes of when she first started approaching members of her community about activism and was met with skepticism because she was relatively new in the community and not well-known. We asked her about fear, and she said: “we all have fear in the body, but we continue anyway.” She told us that when she is released, she will continue her activism by providing newer activists with guidance. She believes solidarity is the key: “the government wants to silence us one-by-one. But we are bigger than the government together. We have to use our power.” When we asked if there were any parts of the interview that she would like for us to omit, she smiled wryly and said: “Write what you want. I’ve said too many things already.”