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Marta Kasztelan from Phnom Penh – WNN Features

Cambodian minority women land rights protesters

Cambodian minority women rights defenders say “Free Yorm Bopha!” as they protest for the human rights under Land Rights Law in Phnom Penh, Cambodia in July 2013. Image: Marta Kasztelan/WNN

(WNN) Phnom Penh, CAMBODIA, EASTERN ASIA: As Phnom Penh, Cambodia continues to be gripped by the forced eviction crisis, protests supporting the release of the most outspoken person in the ‘stop evictions’ movement in Cambodia also continue. Many of the protesters are women who have suffered personally the effects of losing a home that their family has lived in for decades.

After a 79+ million dollar corporate development land deal with the Cambodian government was made in 2007, displaced minority families in the northern Boeung Kak Lake region rose to 4,200, says human rights organization Amnesty International. The money for the real estate development scheme also included a 99 year lease, leaving little-to-no possibility for those families who want to return to their generational homeland. It also blocked them from ever being able to live there again.

Today those who continue to be affected most severely in this crisis include local women rights defenders and their families who are desperate to bring the issues of land rights and legal rights for minorities in Cambodia to the table with reform for Cambodia’s Land Rights law. There is a near universal consensus that forced evictions disproportionately affect women. The Phnom Penh movement proves that women can take action and do something about it. It challenges the stereotype of women as unaware of their rights and vulnerable, ‘easy targets’ for forced evictions.

“Free Yorm Bopha! You should be ashamed of yourselves!,” says a woman who shouts into a megaphone as she asks for the immediate release of Cambodia’s most avid anti-eviction advocate. The crowd, largely made up of women, joins in and repeats after her. They hold signs with Bopha’s pictures and wear headbands calling for her release. Chanting and singing, with flowers in their hands, they have been protesting in front of the Court of Appeal in Phnom Penh from early afternoon into the evening hours. When they learn of the courtroom verdict against Yorm Bopha, they call louder than before. Some women are crying.

On June 14, 2013 the Court of Appeal in Phnom Penh affirmed a guilty verdict on charges of aggravated assault against land-rights activist Yorm Bopha. Although the court reduced her sentence from three to two years, Bopha, 29, is convinced the decision came as a punishment for her activism.

Following the court’s decision, human rights groups around the world joined the called for Yorm Bopha’s immediate release, alleging lack of due process by the Cambodian courts.

“I will appeal the court’s decision and will do everything to prove that I am innocent. I didn’t do anything wrong. I was just exercising my right to say what I think,“ said Bopha in a public statement made just after the courtroom announced her sentence.

Amnesty International has called Bohpa one of the ‘prisoners of conscience’ currently in Cambodia, as her work continues to provide women the knowledge they need to know more about their own legal human rights.

“The Government claims in its State Party Report 2008 that “[a]ll people in Cambodia are well protected by law” with respect to forced evictions. However, in contradiction to this claim, comprehensive laws and regulations setting out the rules and procedures to govern land expropriation and evictions; the definition of ‘public interest’; the valuation and payment of compensation and conditions of resettlement do not exist,” said the United Nations OHCHR – Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in 2009.

“Cambodia urgently needs such a legal framework, which is compliant with the obligations to which it is legally bound under the Covenant. The failure of the Government to take steps to enact a comprehensive and Covenant-compliant legislative framework on security of tenure for all households and on evictions constitutes a violation of its obligations to progressively fulfill the right to adequate housing,” continued the OHCHR.

Yorm Bopha was first convicted in December 2012, by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court for “intentional violence with aggravating circumstances.”

The Prosecutor alleged that, together with Bopha’s husband and two brothers during the protests, she masterminded a violent attack on two motorcyclists who had stolen side mirrors from her car. These details in the charges made against her have been widely disputed by human rights organizations worldwide.

While Bopha was sentenced to three years in prison, her husband received a suspended jail term. Cambodian State Prosecutor Than Seng Narong, in his closing speech, said that both Yorm Bopha and her husband were behind the attack but admitted that he does not know why the authorities imprisoned her, but not her husband. Her brothers were convicted and sentenced in absentia.

“Yorm Bopha is behind bars because she opposed a crony deal to evict thousands of people from prime land in Phnom Penh,” said Human Rights Watch Asia director, Brad Adams. “Reducing the sentences of people wrongly convicted is simply a ploy to take the heat off the government and make its conduct appear reasonable. Political interference with the courts is pervasive in Cambodia, but it is particularly prevalent in land dispute cases.”

Ou Virak, president of Cambodian Centre for Human Rights agrees saying that the court hearing confirmed lack of evidence against Bopha.

“She is obviously the victim of an official campaign to silence human rights defenders and the upholding of her conviction in such an unreasonable and outrageous manner serves as a warning to other human rights defenders who dare to speak out,” he said.

Redefining the mother of land-rights activism

Many see Yorm Bopha as the mother of land rights activism in Cambodia. She has been one of the pivotal leaders of the protest movement by women living around Phnom Penh‘s Boeung Kak Lake, a movement that continues to speak out against forced evictions in their community.

In a one-on-one interview with WNN – Women News Network, Bopha outlined that the women protesters decided to exclude men from the protests from the start.

Yorm Bohpa picture

In 2012 Cambodian minority stop forced evictions and denial of land rights defender Yorm Bopha stands in front of a protest as she faces Cambodian security during a ‘Freethe15′ rally in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Bopha was a pivotal leader in helping to release 14 women who were arrested during the time of their protests against the Cambodian government and corporate interests that caused them to lose their family land and homes. Image: FYB Campaign

“There were two reasons for this,” she claims. “First, men loose their head too quickly and as a result can instigate violence, and we didn’t want violence during our protests. Second, many men in our community work for the police or the army. So if they participated in the protests, they would have most likely lost their jobs. Some of them did lose their jobs, even without protesting with us.”

Like most of the Boenk Kak Lake women, Yorm Bopha is a self-proclaimed housewife. And like most women in Cambodia, these ‘housewives-gone-activists’ were very much defined by their roles as mothers and caretakers. However this definition is no longer accurate. Through their mobilization and on-going protests, the women not only oppose forced evictions, but they also challenge the place of modern women in Cambodian society.

Confined to the private sphere of their households in the past, they are very much now present in the public domain and are demanding their rights be respected.

But these ‘housewives’ have not stopped there.

Bopha explained to WNN that policemen and soldiers are more reluctant to hit women than men because of their perception of women as ‘vulnerable and delicate’. Women use this perception to their advantage every time they go out to protest, shared Bopha.  A group of singing, flower-bearing women hosed down by fire trucks will always create a disturbing image and attract media attention, continues the land-rights defender.

But the fear in women who want to protest against Cambodia’s ineffectual land-rights law is ever present.

Women in Cambodia have to find their voice and understand that they should see beyond their roles as wives and homemakers, added Bohpa.

“Many women affected by evictions are scared that if they protest they will loose everything, but they will loose everything if they don’t protest. Initially, my family wasn’t very happy with what I was doing, but now both my husband and my son are very proud of me and are supporting me,“ she continued.

Birth of a new movement

According to Cambodian community organizer Equitable Cambodia, working for social justice and human rights in the region, the Boeung Kak Lake protesters initiated what is now a women’s land-rights movement that is beginning to gather momentum in Cambodia’s capital city of Phnom Penh. Two other women-led groups in Phnom Penh are also using the same tactics as their Boeung Kak Lake sisters to oppose forced evictions in their backyard, and to call for fair compensation for displacement.

Women from the slum of Borei Keila have been demanding alternative accommodation for 300 families forcefully evicted from their homes in January 2012 after the construction firm Phan Imex allegedly failed to honor a land-sharing agreement. Since receiving their eviction notices in November 2012, women living in the vicinity of Phnom Penh International Airport have also been protesting to halt their own evictions as they call for just compensation should the evictions happen in order to make way for the airport‘s expansion.

“We support and teach the other two communities about their rights and explain how to hold peaceful protests,” said Yorm Bopha confidently. “You could say that they are our students. We always go to their protests when we can and they come to ours. We are now three very strong communities and I have a feeling that very soon, we really will become one.”

Authorities crack down

Being a human rights defender in Cambodia is becoming increasingly dangerous.

According to a report by human rights monitoring group ADHOC, in 2012, 232 people were arrested in relation to land and housing issues, marking a 144% increase from 2011. In April 2012, fifteen representatives of the Boeung Kak Lake community were imprisoned after peacefully protesting against their community’s forced eviction. Thirteen of them were sentenced to two and a half years in prison without proper court justice just two days after their arrests.

“When we started the protests, in 2008, they would shove us around a bit, maybe arrest a few people and then let them out the following day. But as the time passed and we wouldn’t give up, the authorities cracked down harder and harder. And now they are making an example of me,” Bopha said to WNN.

This worrying trend was recently highlighted by the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia, Professor Surya Subedi.

“Other chronic land disputes including Boeung Kak lake, Borei Keila and communities near Phnom Penh airport have to be addressed keeping in mind the interest of the people affected by decisions to acquire land for development purposes. I also note the continuing pattern of criminalization of land activist. A number of cases involving violence and detention have been brought to my attention,“ he said in a formal United Nations statement in May 2013.

Despite her current incarceration, Yorm Bopha is adamant she will not be silenced. And judging from the actions of her fellow activists, neither will they. While it is hard to predict whether this movement will spread into rural Cambodia, one thing is certain, the government and companies seeking to invest in the region should not underestimate the ‘Khmer housewives’.

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In the morning of May 28, 2013 near Phnom Penh city hall, authorities called in three fire trucks, which used high-pressure water from their hoses to disperse peaceful protesters from the Boeung Kak, Borei Keila and airport communities. Firefighters also targeted some community members who came to rescue colleagues who had fallen down due to the impact of the water. This riveting video, released by Equitable Cambodia with LICADHO’s Canadadian monitors, was made at the scene in June 2013.

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Struggling against financial gain and corporate land grabs in the indigenous Boeung Kak Lake community of Cambodia, 29-year-old human rights defender Ms Yorm Bopha, who describes herself as “just a simple housewife” was key in assisting the release of 13 women lake residents who were arrested by Cambodian security forces after taking part in protests to defend their rights against forced eviction to enable their families to stay and live on their ancestral land. In the process Bopha herself was arrested and sentenced to 3 years in prison for what Cambodian authorities have said was a charge of “intentional violence with aggravating circumstances,” a charge Amnesty International  says were charges made against her from ‘baseless’ claims. On June 14, 2013 Bopha’s prison sentence was reduced to 2 years imprisonment. Today local and global protests for her freedom continue.   

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For more information on this topic:

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Polish-borne freelance journalist Marta Katzelan is an attorney and human rights legal advocate who has been able to interview Yorm Bopha. Katzelan has been documenting the situation in the region for human rights and land rights closely. She also worked on the production of a documentary film on the use of litigation to ensure accountability for preventable maternal mortality in India.  As an intern with the London-based charity, the AIRE centre, where she provided pro bono legal advice to lawyers and individuals on European Community law and the application of the European Convention on Human Rights, Katzelan sharpened her skills on issues of social justice, human rights and discrimination. 

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