Cambodian land rights activist Tep Vanny has received an international award for leading a battle against forced evictions with a vow to spare no efforts to win the freedom of a jailed fellow campaigner.
The housewife, who has been representing evicted residents from the Boeung Kak lake neighborhood in Phnom Penh which was razed to make way for a luxury residential development, was presented on Tuesday with the Leadership in Public Life Award by Vital Voices—a Washington-based organization that trains women leaders and social entrepreneurs.
“To me—just like other women in Boeung Kak who are suffering from forced evictions—this award is very meaningful,” Tep Vanny said during her acceptance speech at the award gala, which was also attended by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
“It means that the whole world has heard their voices and that the world is showing support for the Boeung Kak villagers. They don’t have to be alone anymore.”
She vowed to continue her demand for compensation for the more than 4,000 families who were relocated from the site since 2008 when Chinese-Cambodian company Shukaku Inc. grabbed their land and began draining the lake for commercial development.
“When I return I will continue my campaign,” she said, adding that 61 families are still holding out for a small parcel of land on the 133-hectare (330-acre) site.
Tep Vanny also vowed to continue seeking the freedom of Yorm Bopha, who was ordered jailed for three years for committing “intentional violence" in connection with the beating of a suspected thief. Human rights groups have said she was targeted for championing the right to housing for the Boeung Kak evictees.
“I hope that we will have a good result [in our fight] for Yorm Bopha,” she said.
Secretariat director of Cambodia’s Housing Rights Task Force Sia Phearum, who was invited to attend Tuesday’s reception, told RFA’s Khmer Service Wednesday that the award would “change the situation in Boeung Kak.”
“Even though it is a bit difficult for the government to accept, I hope that through Tep Vanny’s award … the government will be forced to recognize the truth and act to serve the people,” he said.
Sia Phearum said that during his visit to the U.S. he met with State Department officials and members of the New York-based Human Rights Watch to ask for their intervention in the Boueng Kak issue and to assist in obtaining Yorm Bopha’s release.
‘The reality in Cambodia’
On Monday, Tep Vanny sat down with RFA’s Khmer Service in Washington to discuss the situation of the Boeung Kak villagers, saying she believed that the award—and a tour in Europe last week to promote a related documentary film—will help bring international attention to the dispute.
"The world is monitoring this case,” she said. "Our struggle is no longer useless and we are no longer isolated like before.”
But she said she would not be satisfied until the government releases Yorm Bopha, honors the land request of the remaining families at the site, and ends “widespread forced evictions” in Cambodia.
Tep Vanny said that she has been under constant surveillance by police in Cambodia and expressed frustration that the government would rather “threaten” her than listen to her concerns.
“Every time we submit petitions [to the government] for help, there are hundreds of police officers at the scene,” she said.
She said that she was saddened to have to speak negatively about her homeland while traveling abroad, “but this is the reality in Cambodia.”
“The government is killing us little by little … We are suffering rather than dying instantly.”
Reported by Sarada Taing and Samean Yun for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.