Thursday, January 23, 2014

Cambodian women are revolting!


Yorm Bopha  (left, holding flag) and Tep Vanny (right, fist in air)

Two very courageous young Cambodian women – land rights activists Tep Vanny and Yorm Bopha – were arrested on Tuesday this week as they sought to deliver petitions to the US , Australian and other embassies in Phnom Penh.

Tep Vanny arrested outside US Embassy

Along with 100 or so like-minded activists – the majority of them women – Tep Vanny and Yorm Botha were requesting assistance from the international community in securing the release of 23 garment factory workers arrested earlier this month during a demonstration that saw five striking workers killed when the Cambodian army opened fire on them. (Australia provides military aid to Cambodia, so our hands are not entirely clean!)

Cambodian soldiers shoot striking factory workers

Tep Vanny and Yorm Bopha have each been arrested many times before - for protesting their community’s forced eviction from their homes and land in central Phnom Penh. Approximately 3,500 families, around 17,500 people in the Boeung Kak community have been displaced since 2008 – along with 10s of thousands of other poor Cambodians living in Phnom Penh.

Union leader strangled as he is arrested this week

The Boeung Kak community did not just lose their homes and land. They also lost the lake around which their homes and community were built – including backpackers hotels, hotels, restaurants and markets that provided Phnom Penh with a significant part of its unique character.

The lake and the adjacent lands were sold by the government for $79 million, in breach of its own Land Laws, to a company run by the wife of a Hun Sen government Senator  and friend of the Cambodian Prime Minister. The lake was then filled with sand so that condominiums can be built on what is now a very valuable downtown real estate. Some residents received $8,000 in compensation for the loss of their homes, land and livelihoods. Most received nothing at all.

One of Tep Vanny's many arrests

$79 million represents a healthy proportion of the $100 million or so that Australia will provide Cambodia in foreign aid this year. If Hun Sen and the corrupt band of gangsters that run the country really were in need of an extra $79 million (in addition to the $18 billion in aid the country has received this past 20 years) it is a shame that the international donor community did not simply outbid the Senator’s wife and donate the lake to the Boeung Kak community and the people of Cambodia.

In addition to being beautiful and the focal point of the community, Boeung Kak lake served the ecologically important role as a catchment for excess water during the monsoon season and thus limited flooding in Phnom Penh. Now, because the excess water must go somewhere, it flows – along with excrement, rubbish and sand, into the homes in the area surrounding what was once a lake. No doubt some NGO will now step up to the plate to finance the solving of the flooding and other problems created by what, in essence, has been the Cambodian government’s theft of the land and homes of Cambodian people! It is a key role of NGOs to clean up the messes created and the social wounds caused by the corrupt Hun Sen dictatorship.

Yorm Bopha and Tep Vanny deliver petition to Malaysian Embassy

The arrests of Vanny and Bopha and 9 others earlier this week by black crash-helmeted baton-wielding members of Hun Sen’s Darth Vader Goon Squad was intended to intimidate  the small number of demonstrators defying Hun Sen’s recent ban on public gatherings.  This became apparent when they were released later in the day.

The day before Vanny and Bopha’s arrests Hun Sen had the following to say about the fact that he had not, to date, cracked down on gatherings of more than 9 people:

“Previously the CPP (Cambodian People’s Party) did not use the force of its supporters and some people said that  if the CPP comes out, there will not be so many people – like a handful of monkeys. If Hun Sen comes out to do something , it’s not going to be small. Action will be taken when it is time to do it. So be clear about that. That’s not a threat, it’s the implementation of the law. Do you want to know or try a taste?”

Striking factory workers experiences a 'taste' of Hun Sen's justice

What Hun Sen means by “a taste” was  experienced by union leader Chea Vichea on 22nd Jan 2004 when he was assassinated. It was experienced in 1997 by opposition leader Sam Rainsy when 16 people died in a grenade attempt on his life. It has been experienced by countless Cambodians who have been tortured, killed, intimidated and jailed for standing up to their Prime Minister’s thuggery.  

Striking garment factory workers beaten up by Cambodian army

The suspension of Cambodians’ constitutional right to free assembly is itself illegal but such niceties do not concern Hun Sen. He is a law unto himself or, to put it another way, he applies Cambodian law when it suits him and not when it does not – declaring one day that he cannot interfere with the independence of the judiciary and the next instructing the judiciary what to do.

Baton-wielding Darth Vader Goon Squad gives demonstrator a 'taste' of Hun Sen's idea of justice.

Decades of multiple breaches of Cambodians’ human rights, the theft of the land and homes of Cambodian people and the exploitation of Cambodia’s natural resources to enrich Hun Sen, his family, his political cronies and rich friends, has occurred whilst the international donor community continues, year after year, to pump hundreds of millions of dollars into Cambodian coffers. This money relieves the Cambodian government of the need to provide its people with social services – health, education, roads and other infrastructure and renders it virtually impossible for NGOs to withdraw their services as it is the poor Cambodians who would suffer.

Is Australia’s $100 million aid per year really helping materially poor Cambodians or is it, by relieving the government of the need to take care of its own people, propping up a Hun Sen-led kleptocracy and making already rich Cambodians richer?

Australia provides military assistance to a government that calls in its army to kill striking garment factory workers

Given that the Cambodian army shot and killed 5 striking factory workers earlier this month is it appropriate that Australia provide military assistance to the Hun Sen regime. And a regime, it is, not a democracy. This is blindingly obvious to anyone with their eyes and ears open but not, it seems, to whoever it is that has decided that the regime needs to be propped up with Australian tax-payer’s money.

The international donor community may not have the cajones to stand up to Hun Sen but Yorm Bopha and Tep Vanny do. And a lot of other women who are prepared to risk jail and death rather than endure Hun Sen’s dictatorship any longer. Yes, there are some men involved in this struggle – lots of men – but it is the women who stand out and the women who, increasingly, find themselves under arrest. One who is unfailingly at every rally, every demonstration, is 73 year old Nget Khun. She has also been jailed for having the temerity to demonstrate the loss of her home and land in the absence of any compensation at all.

73 year old Nget Khun 

For the rest of the week Yorm Botha, Tep Vanny and others have been defying Hun Sen – taking to the streets to march from embassy to embassy with petitions in hopes that the international community will come to the aid of the suffering Cambodian people and stop providing the Hun Sen dictatorship with legitimacy by pretending that Cambodia is a democracy; that the international community will put pressure on the government to release the 23 striking factory workers and allow an independent investigation to take place into the flawed July 2103 elections and the milling of the 5 factory workers earlier in the month.

Yorm Bopha, 31, recently spent more than a year of a 3 year jail sentence locked up for committing "intentional violence with aggravating circumstances.” Amnesty International declared the charges “fabricated’ – as are most charges laid against critics and opponents of Hun Sen. It would be a brave judge prepared to deliver a verdict (regardless of evidence) that was not in line with Hun Sen’s wishes.

Under pressure from the international donor community (which does, from time to time, put principle before self interest and motherhood statements about its ‘concern’ about human rights breaches) Yorm Bopha was released on bail in November 2013. It will be a miracle if she does not find herself back behind bars. She is such a vocal critic of the government. A loud vocal critic. And fearless, as are all the women who are revolting against the Hun Sen dictatorship.

Tep Vanny speaks for all of these brave women when she says: “We have no fear of arrest or being put in jail. We’re used to being scared. We want justice.”

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