A Cambodian Spring: land rights activism and Cambodia’s upcoming general election
Olivia Dehnavi and Katie Johnston
“They consider the people enemies, ignoring, oppressing and abusing them. They don’t care about the people. They oppress the people. They make their own people suffer without justice and make them cry.”
Following Cambodia’s 2013 general election, up to 50,000 people protested on the streets of Phnom Penh, expressing their outrage at widespread irregularities in the polling. The demonstrations forced a number of concessions from the government before being brutally repressed by security forces in January 2014, with the deaths of at least five people. A Cambodian Spring, a new documentary, follows three Cambodians who were involved in the 2013 protests.
One of the activists in the film, Ms. Tep Vanny, has been imprisoned in Phnom Penh since August 2016. Vanny was propelled into activism by the need to defend her community from the endemic corruption, land-grabbing and human rights abuses that underlie Cambodia’s dramatic economic development over recent decades. Her charisma and courage have made her a figurehead in Cambodia – as well as a perceived threat for the government. In 2004, Vanny and her family moved to Cambodia’s capital to make a new home on the shores of its largest lake, Boeung Kak. Just six years later, both the home and the lake would be gone, the land beneath them leased by the government to a Chinese company who pumped the lake with sand to capitalise on its central Phnom Penh location and develop the land. Thousands of families were forcibly and violently evicted from their homes, looking on as the buildings were demolished and the lake water receded. Along with her neighbours, Vanny led peaceful protests, submitted petitions, and became the face of a movement. For her efforts, she has been targeted by the authorities: harassed, beaten, arrested, and imprisoned.
When the so-called “Black Monday” protests began in May 2016, demanding freedom for five human rights defenders held in arbitrary detention, Tep Vanny was on the front lines. By 15 August 2016, her own freedom had been taken from her. In a campaign to obstruct her activism, Vanny has been repeatedly arrested, and since her detention she has been convicted in three politically-motivated cases. All relate to her legitimate activities defending human rights, some of them years-old dormant cases revived to silence her voice, distance her from her community and imprison her until after the 2018 national elections. Her current two and a half year sentence relates to a 2013 protest outside the Prime Minister Hun Sen’s house. Yet despite her prolonged and unjust imprisonment, which has kept her painfully separated from her young children, Vanny’s spirit remains unbroken: she considers that her community’s activism has been a success, as virtually all the Boeung Kak families have now obtained titles to their land. To pass the time in prison, she crochets small bags – some featuring the red and blue Cambodian flag with its distinctive Angkor Wat temple motif – which she gives to visitors as gifts.
The events depicted in the film provide essential context for the current political situation in Cambodia. For the past two years the ruling party has systematically targeted the key actors in the 2013 protests, with the aim of ensuring no such challenge to their continued rule at the upcoming general election, scheduled for 29 July 2018. Trade unions, land rights activists like Vanny, human rights defenders and opposition politicians have each faced repression that has all but eliminated their ability to operate effectively. Following the November 2017 dissolution of the only opposition party with a real chance of challenging the government, any possibility of a free and fair poll has disappeared. Its popular leader, Kem Sokha, has been held in arbitrary detention since September 2017. The US and EU have cut funding for the election, on the ground that an electoral process from which the main opposition party has been arbitrarily excluded “cannot be seen as legitimate.” The opposition has called for voters to boycott the poll.
Despite the bleak outlook for Cambodia’s democracy, the remarkable recent election result in Malaysia was a rare ray of hope for democrats in the region. A corrupt ruling party lost power for the first time since independence, despite similar restrictions of fundamental freedoms and widespread gerrymandering. The surprise result must surely also provide food for thought for Cambodia’s rulers. A Cambodian Spring, filmed over six years, shows clearly how official indifference, impunity and corruption, threatening the homes and livelihoods of individuals and communities, culminated in a collective protest movement that nearly toppled a government. While the ruling party may have restricted the means by which Cambodian people can criticise and express opposition to those in power in the years since 2013, the same underlying human rights violations and grievances remain in 2018.
On 30 May 2018 the Oxford Bonavero Institute of Human Rights is co-organising a screening of A Cambodian Spring, followed by a Q&A with the director and one of the activists featured in the film. More information available here: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/events/cambodian-spring-film-screening-and-qa
Olivia Dehnavi lives and works on human rights in Cambodia, specialising in the protection of human rights defenders. She holds a Graduate Diploma in Law from City University.
Katie Johnston is an M.St. candidate in Public International Law at the University of Oxford. She has previously lived and worked on human rights issues in Cambodia.