PHNOM PENH, Cambodia – Boeung Kak lake was once a glimmering expanse of water stretching across 220 acres (90 hectares) in the north of Cambodia’s capital, and a popular spot for residents to escape the city heat.
Now there is only a dusty, flat plain where the lake used to be. Motorbikes flick up dirt as they crisscross the barren landscape, while construction workers lay the foundations for the luxury condos and office buildings that will soon occupy the area.
For the best part of a decade, a group of women living around Boeung Kak has been trying to stop this from happening, all while facing the threat of beatings and jail time for their activism.
“In the community, we [women] are the ones who speak out,” said Bov Sophea, a community leader who has been arrested and imprisoned for protesting. “Even if we know that we will be arrested, we’re not scared. We volunteered for this work.”
In 2007, authorities greenlit a $79 million project to develop the lake and the surrounding land, sparking Cambodia’s most infamous land conflict to date. Real estate developer Shukaku began filling the lake with sand the following year, flooding homes and businesses. Authorities gave residents an ultimatum: Take $8,500 and leave, or take $500 and relocate to government-provided housing on the city’s southwest fringes.
Such land evictions are nothing new in Cambodia, a country on the path of rapid economic growth with an inadequate system of land titling – a hangover from the Khmer Rouge era when private property ownership was abolished, leaving many struggling to prove they had rights to their land.
But it’s apparent that almost no one was counting on the fierceness of the Boeung Kak women, who stridently opposed the development, staging frequent protests. While nearly 4,000 families were forcibly evicted or took the compensation, others stayed to fight. Some of their land claims remain unresolved today.
The most prominent activist is 36-year-old Tep Vanny, who is currently in jail. She has become a symbol of the long-running conflict and helped to build momentum around the country’s land rights movement.
“She’s the one who gives advice and comes up with the ideas. She does the things that others cannot do,” Sophea said.
Naly Pilorge, director of the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights, which has provided support to the group, described Vanny as “a great orator” whose fearlessness has drawn the ire of authorities.
“She’s one of the women from Boeung Kak lake who’s been most targeted because of her visibility and her speech – what she says and her ability to express certain simple but also complicated issues – and her ability to mobilize people,” Pilorge said.
The women’s efforts have brought some results: In 2011, under pressure from the World Bank, Cambodia’s prime minister Hun Sen announced that just over 30 acres (12 hectares) of the 330-acre (133-hectare) lease would be put aside for the roughly 700 families still holding out. But struggles with city authorities over the land allocation have dragged on for years.
Vanny has been jailed three times since 2011, and is currently serving a two and a half-year prison sentence. She was found guilty in February of “intentional violence with aggravating circumstances” over an attempt to deliver a petition to Hun Sun in 2013. In a statement earlier this month, Human Rights Watch’s deputy Asia director Phil Robertson called the charges politically motivated, saying they were part of the government’s “latest retaliatory act in its campaign to intimidate critical voices.”
Pilorge slammed the cases against Vanny and other human rights activists as “trivial,” saying there was often “very low evidence” to prove any crime had been committed.
“In fact, there’s evidence to the contrary. Trials are often delayed or the judges argue about allowing witnesses to fully answer questions,” she said. “So from our point of view, there are many, many, many problems of due process and fair trial, with regards to not just Vanny but other activists as well.”
Spokesmen for the court have defended the legitimacy of the judge’s ruling in Vanny’s latest case.
The struggle has come at a high personal cost for Vanny, who has been labeled a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International and selected as one of five activists worldwide to front their #Brave campaign.
The mother of two is separated from her children, who are now living with their grandmother after Vanny’s marriage broke down. In a message from prison, she said her children’s safety and their ability to access education while she was incarcerated were major concerns.
Despite this, Vanny, who now campaigns on a range of social issues in Cambodia, reaffirmed her commitment to activism when she is eventually released.
“Detaining me for the third time is not a surprise or scary for me, but it is making me braver because what we have done is for the society [and] country,” she wrote in her message. “My body may be detained, but not my soul or my commitment. I am still working in order to continue to demand justice.’’
And, for their part, the women of Boeung Kak lake will by her side as Vanny – who on August 8 lost an appeal against her sentence – has at least two other cases hanging over her head.
Earlier this month, the women held a candlelit vigil at Boeung Kak to mark one year since their friend and leader was imprisoned.
“We try to help her in all the ways that we can,” said Sophea. “We won’t leave her alone. We are like sisters; more than sisters.”