By Khy Sovuthy, The Cambodia Daily, May 17, 2013
When Boeung Kak lake protesters converged on the Phnom Penh Municipal Court to demand justice for imprisoned activist Yorm Bopha last month, an increasingly familiar face was at the front.
After her fellow activists chanted, released birds from a cage and then dispersed, Song Srey Leap, 27, remained at the court’s entrance.
Crying, she continued screaming for justice as police – who likely recognised the face before them – watched her every move.
A year ago, Srey Leap wasn’t an activist. Her community was in the grip of an enduring land dispute and her mother was a regular protester, but Srey Leap was only a silent observer.
“I would only sometimes attend protests, on the weekend, when I wasn’t working,” she said yesterday. “But I never spoke with police. I was only ever watching.”
Almost a year ago, things changed. Srey Leap was arrested with 12 other women as she observed another protest, she said.
The group, soon known as the “Boeung Kak 13”, was sentenced – in a three-hour trial – to two-and-a-half years in Prey Sar prison.
“Some women came back to our village and said officials were receiving orders on walkie-talkies to begin arresting women,” Srey Leap said of the events leading to her arrest. “I heard this and went to the [nearby protest] to warn people to come back.”
Soon after, Srey Leap was detained on the sand dunes of Boeung Kak as she headed home with Phan Chhunreth, who was also arrested and imprisoned.
Although released on appeal 34 days later, the women’s convictions – for encroaching on private property and disputing authority – remained.
“I felt very angry with authorities,” said Srey Leap, who is the youngest of the 13. “I didn’t do anything wrong. I tried to explain this to police when I was arrested, but they didn’t listen.
“During our three-hour trial, I was questioned for two minutes. It ended with the court clerk saying police wouldn’t have arrested me if I’d done nothing wrong.”
The treatment of the women and two others detained at their trial and sent to Prey Sar was widely condemned last year. Critics accused the government of trying to silence protesters.
If that was its aim, Srey Leap’s arrest had the opposite effect – in prison, her silence gave way to forthright dissent.
“I’d never been to a prison before. I felt like my life was ruined,” she said. “I was surrounded by people who had done things like stolen a bag – and they were serving three to five years. Yet we know of corrupt officials who have been convicted of crimes and are still free.
“When we were in prison, I thought, ‘If I can get out, I will make a plan to find our community a resolution.’”
Since her release, Srey Leap has been at most Boeung Kak protests, often at the forefront. Her mother, Ieng Bunnary, has protested less and focused more on providing for the family, leaving her daughter to become an almost full-time activist.
The 27-year-old acts as a communications officer for the Boeung Kak community, and when she’s not protesting, she’s often devising better ways to protest.
“I’m not protesting because I’m angry with the authorities. I feel angry, sure, but I don’t want revenge. I want a solution for the people.
“And it’s not just about Boeung Kak for me now – we need the courts to stop corruption and stop the powerful controlling them. They need to follow the rule of law and give everyone justice – even the poor.”
The likely attempt to stifle the Boeung Kak activists appeared to have backfired, said Sia Phearum, secretariat director of rights group Housing Rights Task Force.
“I think the authorities gave experience to them,” he said. “After they went to prison, they saw more injustice around them.
“We have found them doing more after prison. Srey Leap especially has become more active. She doesn’t want to sleep – she has found the issues around her serious.”
After more than a year beating on the doors of City Hall to demand an audience with Phnom Penh’s recently retired municipal governor Kep Chuktema, Borei Keila and Boeung Kak lake representatives were yesterday invited in to talk with his successor – on just his second day in the job.
Maintaining a tone he set during his swearing-in on Friday, Pa Socheatvong, the new governor promised quick solutions to the capital’s two most high-profile disputes, according to the representatives he spoke with.
“He told me that after checks of all villagers’ documents have been made, he will go to inspect the communities and facilitate discussions in order to resolve the dispute,” said Heng Mom, a Boeung Kak community representative.
“I believe in him and hope he will solve land problems for all people in Phnom Penh, including ours. He won’t be like Kep Chuktema, who simply ignored our problems.”
Chuktema, who oversaw the filling-in of Boeung Kak lake, refused to meet with representatives from that community after August 2011, when Prime Minister Hun Sen signed off on sub-decree 183.
The sub-decree cut 12.44 hectares of land from the concession held by Senator Lao Meng Khin’s Shukaku Inc, but that land has yet to be demarcated and some 60 families remain without land titles.
Likewise, Chuktema did not once meet with Borei Keila representatives after their violent eviction on January 3 last year.
Many of the subsequent protests involving either or both communities have rarely garnered anything but violent or detached responses from the municipal authorities.
Socheatvong’s contrasting approach was thus a welcome change and one they hoped would result in a solution soon, Borei Keila representative Pich Limkhoun said.
“We are so happy because his words are our hope of getting a proper and fair solution,” she said.
Socheatvong had promised to resolve their disputes, but would focus immediately on addressing food shortage and shelter problems faced by Borei Keila evictees, Limkhoun added.
The governor had suggested that in return, the villagers should stop protesting.
“I told him we want a solution before the National Election [on July 28],” Limkhoun said.
“We do not want to wait until after the election, because we worry that something will change,” she said, adding that the governor had not specified when a solution would come.
Socheatvong could not be reached yesterday, while City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche confirmed the meeting had taken place, but did not elaborate.
Sia Phearum, secretariat director of rights-group Housing Rights Task Force, said the governor’s approach was a step forward.
“I feel positive that at least he is talking to people and hearing their problems,” he said.
“But we will wait and see if he can solve this before the election.”
About 50 villagers from Boeung Kak lake, Borei Keila and Thmor Kol – a community involved in a land dispute near the airport – filed documents to the Ministry of Justice yesterday, urging the Appeal Court to hear imprisoned activist Yorm Bopha’s case.
The Boeung Kak community and a land rights NGO yesterday released a proposed demarcation plan they say could solve the long-standing land dispute.
In a map presented yesterday, villagers said they had agreed on a land division that would make room for 70 families locked out of a plot created by the government and set aside for hundreds of families.
“Including the villagers who had been cut out from the land concession plan given by the sub-degree into that free space is the best way to end this chronic land dispute. However, this solution depends on the conscientious decision of the government officials,” notes the report issued by NGO Sahmakum Teang Tnaut, which presented a preliminary plan in July 2012.
“This method is the best for finishing the Beoung Kak land dispute, which is what the government and Beoung Kak villagers want,” said Chan Rithisa, a Beoung Kak representative. Villagers have been locked in a dispute with the city and the development company since 2007, when CPP senator Lao Meng Khin’s Shukaku company was granted a 99-year lease to fill in the lake and build a massive development complex of apartments, villas, shops, and restaurants. After a protracted struggle, in 2011 Prime Minister Hun Sen signed a sub-decree awarding a 12.44 hectare plot to more than 600 families who had turned down the initial compensation and resettlement schemes.
But scores of families remained locked out of the deal, and the dispute has raged on with near-constant protests that, at times, have grown violent.
Shukaku’s Meng Khin could not be reached for comment.
Phnom Penh City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche said he hadn’t heard about the proposed solution, but found it “strange”.
“I don’t know about this issue clearly yet, but it is surprising,” he said.