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Forced Eviction Turned Grocery Vendor to Leading Activist

Cambodian protester Tep Vanny, center, talks with journalists after she and a group of others from Beung Kak lake submitted a petition to the National Assembly asking the government to return the title of their land, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Wednesday, May 2, 2012. (AP Photo/Heng Sinith)
PHNOM PENH - Tep Vanny is one of the most prominent of a new group of land rights activists that have emerged in Cambodia in recent years. Five years ago, she sold groceries, hoping to add to the income of her husband, who was a soldier. Now, she is at the forefront of many demonstrations, has been jailed for her participation in protests, and is a leading organizer for those put out of their homes in forced evictions.

Her husband has been suspended from his job, and they struggle to feed their son and daughter.

In a recent interview with VOA Khmer, Tep Vanny, who is just 31, said “everything changed” when developers began to kick people out of their homes at Boeung Kak lake, her neighborhood in Phnom Penh. Some 4,000 families have been ousted from their homes by the developer Shukaku Inc., which is run by a ruling party senator.

The tactics of the developer, which pushed out many people agains their will, offering low buyouts and inadequate relocation options, forced her to become politically active, she said. She became a leader among the hold-outs who refused to leave their homes and has been at the front of many demonstrations over the last five years, many of those violent.

Earlier this year, she was arrested and held for 10 days, along with 12 other activists. The courts had threatened to sentence them to two and a half years before setting them free.

Tep Vanny, who dropped out of school at age 9 and who came from a poor farming family of nine children in Kampot province, will next year travel to the US to receive the Global Partnership Award, under an initiative by the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She has spoken to audiences in Thailand and Singapore, describing the violence used to throw people from their homes.

“I say I am not afraid of death when I join demonstrations,” she told VOA Khmer. “We know the situation in Cambodia. When people dare to do something against the government, they will be reacted to in certain ways, but I am not afraid of that.”

Prominent activism can be dangerous in Cambodia. Many activists are jailed or beaten or threatened, and some have been killed in murders that are never solved. In 2004, prominent labor activist Chea Vichea was gunned down in broad daylight, after he grew to prominence among garment factory workers who demanded better wages and working conditions. In April, environmental activist Chut Wutty was shot dead at a jungle checkpoint, after leading journalists into the mountains of Koh Kong province to investigate illegal logging and the harvesting of rare plants for drug production there.

But Tep Vanny said she was forced into her leadership role and that she won’t give up.

“Before the development project, I sold food for the daily use of people,” she said. “I could earn some money from that, but everything changed when the development came.”

Under the Vital Voices Global Partnership Award, she will travel to the US in March and stay for about a month. She told VOA Khmer she was surprised to be awarded. The award was not only important for her, she said, but for all of the women of Boeung Kak, who have sacrificed their time and risked their lives to demonstrate for the return of their land.

Her husband, who was forced to rely on carpentry and picture framing after his suspension from the military, said he was surprised by the award. “I didn’t expect a woman like my wife to be awarded with such an honor,” he told VOA Khmer.

Tep Vanny said she has been forced out of her role as a wife and mother, but she hopes it will all be worth it. She remains optimistic that the families of Boeung Kak will ultimately prevail, and that the government will in the end grant them land on the new development site, which she said would bring them “justice.”