Fresh from receiving the “Nobel Prize for Human Rights,” Cambodia’s technology-savvy activist monk Loun Sovath has called on authorities in his country to end the use of violence in land eviction cases, vowing to continue his struggle to protect victims of land grabs.
He also said he would not be cowed by government harassment and called on his fellow monks, often respected as figures of moral authority in Cambodia, to join in the struggle to defend villagers who have become victims of forced evictions.
Loun Sovath was the first Southeast Asian to be presented with the 2012 Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders as he was selected for documenting the struggle of land rights activists and ordinary citizens evicted from their homes in his impoverished country.
The monk collected the award—viewed by many as the Noble Prize for Human Rights—in Geneva last month.
“The Buddha advised people to do good deeds both physically and mentally,” he told RFA’s Khmer service during an interview in Washington on Wednesday.
“Respecting human rights is a good deed which will lead to peace and prosperity for this world and in the next. So for monks to become rights defenders is nothing against Buddhism, but can lead to enlightenment and peace.”
“Monks play a vital role in society. I appeal to monks to rise up to follow in the Buddha’s footsteps,” he said.
Loun Sovath said the Cambodian people must also rise up to demand their rights, highlighting land disputes as the one of the biggest issues facing the public in the country.
“The authorities must stop using violence against innocent villagers who are the victims of land grabbing,” he said.
Research by Cambodian rights group LICADHO shows that some 2.1 million hectares of land has been given to private companies in the form of land concessions over the last two decades.
The massive transfer has led to countless forced evictions and affected over 400,000 people in the 12 provinces that LICADHO monitors since 2003 alone, the group said.
Sovath is currently touring the U.S., meeting with the Cambodian community and addressing various nongovernmental organizations on the human rights situation in his country. He began his nearly two-month visit last week in New York, traveled to Washington, and arrived in Chicago Thursday.
Sovath said he was honored to receive the Martin Ennals Award.
“I was given the award because I have worked as a rights defender and a protector of social justice involved with land issues, forced evictions, and the protection of natural resources and wildlife,” he said.
In June 2011, the New York-based Human Rights Watch awarded Loun Sovath with the Hellman/Hammett grant for his work supporting communities facing forced evictions and land-grabbing in Cambodia.
Years of activism
Sovath first became involved in human rights work in 2009, when members of his family were injured during a police shootout at unarmed villagers in a land eviction case. The monk’s brother and nephew were wounded in the standoff, which he documented in a video.
He is known for his extensive use of video to inform the world about his confrontations with authorities, earning him the nickname “multimedia monk.” The monk is rarely seen without a mobile phone or tablet. He also uses songs and art to spread his non-violent message of defending human rights.
Loun Sovath said he strove to protect human rights in the interest of his country.
“I have a desire to help build Cambodia,” he said.
In June, Loun Sovath was briefly detained by Cambodian authorities and accused of “causing instability” after he joined protests against the jailing of 13 women over a long-running forced land eviction case in the capital Phnom Penh.
Municipal monk officials threatened to have him defrocked as a monk, but released him after he put his thumbprint on a statement assuring that he will not join future protests. Loun Sovath had been banned in April from entering pagodas in Phnom Penh after he participated in land protests.
Sovath, who has since participated in various protests, said he would not stop his activism even though he was concerned about his personal safety.
“The authorities have tried to prevent me from doing good things and from helping the country and [the Buddhist] religion,” Sovath said.
“I can’t accept this because I have done nothing wrong,” he said.
“As long as human rights violations continue to exist in Cambodia, I will continue to do my work.”
Reported by Samean Yun for RFA’s Khmer service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.