Cambodia’s activists fight to keep their land

ELIZABETH JACKSON: As political protests continue in Cambodia, one woman remains a symbol of the government’s crackdown on anyone who dares to criticise.

Yorm Bopha is a young woman from Boeng Kak Lake where residents have run a concerted campaign against the eviction of an entire community in favour of a large, government supported development.

Jailed on what human rights activists call trumped up charges, activists remain ever hopeful that she might be released.

South-east Asia correspondent Zoe Daniel has been closely following Yorm Bopha’s case since she was arrested.

ZOE DANIEL: For more than a year, nine-year-old Lous Lyhour has been without his mother.

Cuddling a new puppy outside the house he shares with his father, he talks quietly when I ask him about her.

(Lous Lyhour speaking in Khmer)

“I miss her. She is brave and keeps struggling for the sake of our home”, he tells me. “I can’t live without her”.

When 13 women from the low income Boeng Kak lake community were arrested and jailed for fighting against eviction to make way for a government-backed private development, Yorm Bopha was the leader of a high profile campaign to get them freed.

Their case drew attention to land grabs across the country, and the impact on people losing their homes to rampant development, with little or no respect for human rights.

International political and media interest was sparked and the others from her community were let go, but then Yorm Bopha was jailed on what human rights activists say were trumped up assault charges.

Ou Virak from the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights:

OU VIRAK: She was one out of many who the government was trying to use as examples to create more fear, to rule by fear, to continue to rule by fear.

When there was some resistance, when there was some dissent, the government was trying immediately to crush that.

ZOE DANIEL: A recent appeal reduced Yorm Bopha’s sentence from three years to two, but that leaves her with almost another year to serve. We first met Bopha’s family and friends last year when they were still coming to terms with her imprisonment.

At a community meeting fellow activist Tep Vanny, just released from jail due in part to her friend’s efforts, read to us and the group from a letter Bopha had sent from jail.

(Tep Vanny reading letter in Khmer)

“I love you all because you all give me power and your good will give me hope”, it reads.

Back then, Yorm Bopha’s husband and son were praying for her release. Not a lot has changed.

Her husband Lous Sakhorn says:

(Lous Sakhorn speaking Khmer)

“They keep detaining Bopha to threaten others not to advocate and to take Bopha’s arrest as an example.”

Now Prime Minister Hun Sen has more than the activists from Boeng Kak Lake to worry about. Since the election, thousands have joined anti-government street protests claiming vote rigging and fraud helped secure Hun Sen’s victory.

Many are calling for the same things advocated by the women of Boeng Kak Lake – a crackdown on corruption and increased opportunities and respect for the poor.

Activist Tep Vanny:

TEP VANNY: We want to throw him out from the country. We want to get the new prime minister that has the capacity for development of the country and for working for the people, for Cambodia.

ZOE DANIEL: At the very least, Ou Virak from the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights hopes recent events will lead to a change of government attitude.

OU VIRAK: This election, I hope, is a huge wake-up call; I hope it’s a big enough kick to the ruling party that there will not be politics as usual and because of that, I’m optimistic that the government will make that political decision to release her and eventually make real decisions to no longer grab people’s land.

ZOE DANIEL: Yorm Bopha’s son simply wants his mum back.