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Cambodian Women Land Rights Activists: “No one can silence us.”

  • JASS

“Khmer tradition dictates that women should just stay at home. Studying in school and joining social actions and political activities are often discouraged. Historically, women have been discriminated against so much so that women themselves think that the only thing they should really be good at is cooking rice. My passion is…to make women themselves realize that they should get involved in politics, excel in what they do, be confident and brave, and claim their rightful place in society… even if it takes being behind these prison bars to prove this point,” said Kong Chantha, land rights activist from the Boeung Kak community of Cambodia, while imprisoned, December 2014. 

Kong Chantha was part of a group of women known as the “Boeung Kak 13” who were arrested on May 22, 2012 while protesting forced eviction from a poor village community surrounding what used to be the Boeung Kak Lake in central Phnom Penh. Many of the residents in Boeung Kak community have called the lakeside home for decades and under Cambodia’s land law, that should entitle them to full ownership of their properties. But this land law was not applied in the case of Boeung Kak. The women were convicted by the Phnom Penh court on baseless charges of inciting others to take land illegally and obtaining land illegally. The women were initially sentenced to jail but later released following an international outcry.

And while they have more recently been granted amnesty, they maintain that their arrest and detention were unjust and as Kong Chantha said in an interview with JASS Southeast Asia’s Kunthea Chan, “the fight continues.” Around 700 families were recently granted land titles, including her own – the result of years of struggle, but 40 families remain without titles.  

The Story behind the Boeung Kak Community and Economic Land Concessions (ELCs)

In Cambodia, there have already been 1,500 urban and 2,000 rural communities demolished to give way to multinational companies’ megaprojects, including agro-industry to produce food for export to other countries. Under the Cambodian government’s Economic Land Concession (ELC) scheme which serves as the legal basis for granting land to foreign corporations, an estimated 400,000 people were evicted from their land in Cambodia to prepare for building mega-dams and cascade dams planned along the Mekong River in the first nine months of 2012 alone. Boeung Kak was just one among the many communities in Cambodia where the poor were driven out of their homes to give way to these land concessions to the corporations. In this case it was Shukaku Inc. which won the ELC contract, a company owned by a well-connected Senator and major donor to the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) – the country’s ruling party.

Land grabbing is becoming a common phenomenon not just in Cambodia and Southeast Asia but other parts of the world. Large-scale mining and building of mega-dams are happening at massive scales causing displacement, loss of livelihood, and starvation. Areas targeted for mining and building of mega-dams are subject to intensive militarization or repressive policies such as curtailing the right to assembly as in the case of Phnom Penh where the right to peaceful assembly is outlawed from time to time. Indeed, the land rights concerns of Cambodia are a microcosm of a global phenomenon.

Discrediting Women Land Rights Activists & the Impact in their Daily Lives

As some of the most outspoken activists in the country, the women leaders of the Boeung Kak community – particularly Vital Voices Global Leadership (2013) awardee Tep Vanny, Yorm Bopha, and Kong Chantha, are specifically targeted by government threats and efforts to discredit them. They are being arrested, slandered in public. They are portrayed in the media as ‘fake protesters’ and paid hacks of the opposition party, Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). They were also accused of seeking popularity and international awards. The Cambodian government also uses social media such as Facebook to criticize the women land rights activists.

Some people also accuse the land rights activists and Boeung Kak residents of being “selfish”. They argue that the construction of tall buildings and road widening of the Boeung Kak area will bring “development” to the country and that the residents should sacrifice for the “common good”. “Stay at home and be a good mother.[instead of joining and leading protests],” they advise the women land rights activists.

It is also a struggle for women land rights activists within the community and their families. Especially in the beginning, they have had to deal with lack of support and skepticism. Some of the women leaders deal with divorce too because not all of their husbands approve of their activism. Some of the Boeung Kak children also drop out of school.

Women activists also face violence. In one protest action, Kong Chantha recalls, “Some of us get seriously beaten. There was even one pregnant woman from our community who had a miscarriage because of the violence in protests.” Efforts to silence and demobilize the women come in many forms, including violence, accusations and imprisonment. These are all designed to discourage their activism. Kunthea Chan adds, “The arrests of the land rights activists definitely caused some chilling effect for some. Some people became very scared. The worrisome part is that the government can use any reason to arrest a person even if he or she is not breaking the law. The protests became fewer because most of the protests in Cambodia are led by land rights activists.”

Building Solidarity and Safe Spaces for Women

Women activists have used a range of strategies to gain the ground that they have. Forging alliances with women’s organizations and other justice groups within Cambodia is also one of their core strategies. They invite allies to join them in non-violent protest actions as well as gatherings and discussions. And they conduct continuous organizing among their groups, a reflection of their motto: “The more people, the stronger your community will be”.

They also reach out to allies not just within Cambodia but, globally. JASS, along with partner organizations such as the Cambodian Young Women’s Empowerment Network (CYWEN) are working with them closely to amplify their cause and advocacy.

At the Asia-Pacific Feminist Forum (APFF) held in Bangkok Thailand, JASS facilitated Kong Chantha’s participation as one of the resource speakers of the “Shadow Power” session in partnership with FRIDA: The Young Feminist Fund. With the safe spaces such as these that JASS provides, Kong Chantha says, “I feel that I am not alone. Now I know that there are others who are facing the same struggle. We need to work together for the next generation, for our children.”

JASS Southeast Asia and CYWEN have consistently participated in the mobilizations for the release of the land rights activists. “We had petitions to free them. We released statements of support. We went to their court hearings to show our solidarity,” says Kunthea Chan. During JASS’ regional One Day, One Voice (ODOV) campaign held last year during the 16 Days of Activism (25th of November to 10th of December) with the theme “Justice for All Women Human Rights Defenders”, the campaign to free the land rights activists of Cambodia was at the top of the issues that Cambodia highlighted. Other countries that participated in ODOV such as the Philippines and Indonesia also called for the release of the Cambodian land rights activists, adding to the intense international pressure that helped get the land rights activists freed from prison.

This collective strength and unity of the Boeung Kak as a community despite the fact that they are up against these huge powers is encouraging. As Kong Chantha says, “Our land struggle could have positive impact in other places that have land issues too. We could serve as inspiration”. They were able to overcome the private company, the government, and even the traditions that tell them that a woman should just stay at home and take care of her children, even though they continue to deal with this every day.

“I think we are strong enough now and no one could silence us. We will continue fighting for our demand until the end,” Kong Chantha concludes. 

Article written by Osang Langara

Photo Credit: Housing Rights Task Force (HRTF) Cambodia






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