Story of Tep Vanny

Tep Vanny is always on the streets to complete her responsibility. Unlike other employees, her office is located everywhere where she considers as a place that could bring justice for her community.

It is not so strange when you know that she works everyday although the weather is good or bad. It is not really an occupation—it just a position. For her position, you may not sound so proud, but she said she is very proud and happy so much with this position.

Vanny, 32, is a housing rights activist and Boeung Kak Lake representative. She has been protesting to seek a solution in a land dispute for her community.

She will fly to the US on April 2, 2013 to receive the Global Leadership Award which is so-called Vital Voices. The award, founded by Hillary Clinton, former US Secretary of State, honors five outstanding women each year for their courage and outstanding work to protect women rights. She had been invited to Thailand to visit the model community and to Singapore to share her experiences of Boeung Kak protests.

Born in Kampot province in a poor family, she has nine siblings and she is the fifth. Because her family could not afford for her study, she decided to drop school at grade five and leaved to Phnom Penh to work as a dialer in a casino to support her family. At the casino, she has met her husband that later she married with in 2003. For her married gift, she has a daughter and a son.

Walking from her room and bring three drawings, she said when she was young she loves painting countryside landscape pictures and singing romantic songs. When she was a student, she wanted to be a lawyer because she thought that if she were a lawyer she could help many poor people. She recalled,

“I am remorse that I could not finish my study as other people—I really wanted to study, but I had no a chance.”

One of her friends sitting on a wood bed in front of Vanny’s house describes Vanny’s characteristics, “Vanny is a working hard, courageous, industrious, determine and high commitment person. She always discuss with the villagers to decide doing something.”Vanny is responsible for leading campaigns  for Boeung Kak villagers to take the petitions to government, national and international organizations to demand the government to give  the justice to Boeung Kak community.

On February 6, 2007, the Municipality of Phnom Penh announced that it has granted a 99-year lease to a private developer Shukaku Inc Company for development. According to Article 15 of the Land Law, water bodies, lakes, rivers are considered to be public state property.

Article 16 and 18 of sub-decree 129 ANK.BK on Rules and Procedures on Reclassification of Public State Properties and Public Entities, states that the leasing of public state property must: first, it does not exceed 15 years, and second, it must not damage the property or change its function in providing public services.

The Boeung Kak villagers and NGOs applauded the project by saying the plan will be improve the standard of residents’ living and modernize the city. Boeung Kak representative, Tep Vanny said,

“We are not against the government development project. When we heard that Boeung Kak will be developed,we’re so excited because we hope that our living will be improved.”

The Housing Rights Task Force and Cambodian Center for Human Rights also applauded the Municipality’s efforts to modernize Phnom Penh. The government’s land concession to Shukaku Inc Company, however, has been complained by citing the project will affect to the villagers if the government could not solve the problem by giving a good solution.

The company began pumping sand into the lake in August 2008 to prepare the way of development. The Municipality of Phnom Penh offered households US $8.500 as compensation or relocation to Damnak Trayoung, 20 kilometers from the city, or on-site-housing.

Vanny said most of the villagers prefer the on-site-housing because they think that Boeugn Kak locates in the center of the city, it is beside markets, schools and hospitals. “But it has contrasted what we have expected, and it has become worse off; however, the needs of the urban poor must be addressed, and the massive development project must be planned and carried out in an open, transparent and participatory manner, in compliance with Cambodian and international law,” HRTF said in a press release in 2007.

To urge the government offers the on-site-housing compensation, Boeung Kak has began the protests by calling for the help from the government, the prime minister, NGOs, embassies and international organizations. She has involved with demonstrations after she saw a man was hit on his head by the police in 2010, and the day that the company pumped sand to flood the resident houses.

The representative said that she faces dangers during demonstration, but the dangers cannot stop her commitment. It is full of photos which describe about Boeung Kak protest activities on her house wall. Looking at the sand pumped to fill Boeung Kak, she said in courageous face,

“If I have good luck, I can live long life, but if the unlucky fortune happens to me, I will face to be hit, jailed or killed.”

She continued she was arrested for five times and once was detained in Prey Sor prison. “But it is not the obstacle stop me to do it because I have committed to do it. If we don’t help ourselves, no one can help us. If we don’t do it at this time, our children will suffer in the future.”

Innocence is her spirit to push her continuing the protest. “We do not commit a crime or anti the development project, use any violence activities to demonstrate, thief one’s land or commit corruption, but we just use our rights to protect the living and housing rights—we follow the national and international laws that we should get them,” Vanny explained. “When we know that we are not wrong, it is the abstract power to alert us not to fear,” she added,

“I will continue the demonstration although the authorities try to bar me. We are not afraid of the detentions, but we afraid of homeless and injustice.

Since she has been involving in the demonstrations with other Boeung Kak villagers, her life has been changed. She said that when the area was not given to the company, she had spent her time to think about how to make more profit in her business, to take care of her children and how to send them to study at a good school. “But now I have not worked like this anymore, I have a role to seek good strategies for demonstration to get the solution—I sleep with fear. Since I have been walking on strees to protest, I have lost the role of housewife,” she said.

Her commitments have given fruitful to Boeung Kak after the government has decided to give a plot of land to her community. On August, 2011, the Prime Minister Hun Sen ordered 12.44 hectares at the Boeung Kak Lake be given to the remaining residents for on-site-housing development.

Boeung Kak villagers applauded with this decision. “A lot of people think this is the first success of people’s protest,” Vanny said, “It also is a great experience and example for other Cambodia community all over the country.” But the community still continues protesting although it has succeeded what it has claimed.

They said the decision is not clear enough to clarify the area which the prime minister has approved. Tep Vanny said that her community will continue the protests to seek for a real solution from the government. She calls for three demands. “First, we ask the authority to clarify the 12.44 hectares site which the Prime Minister Hun Sen provided it to us,” adding, “Second, we call for the government to release Mrs. Yom Bopha who is innocence. Third, we call for government to provide land titles to over 60 families.”

Mr Am Sam Ath, technical supervisor for human rights group Licadho, applauded for the decision. “It is good that the government ordered through its sub-degree providing 12.44 hectares to the community.”  He suggested for the solution on Boeung Kak’s land dispute, “The important thing is that the government should clarify where the area (12.44 ha) … the authority must determine the area,” adding, “It will be trouble if it has no clear determination—the company will continue taking over the villagers land by force.” Tep Vanny said,

“We don’t want to protest if the government gives acceptable solutions,” “The government could overthrow Pol Pot’s regime; it also could fight against land disputes.”

Photo: TEP Vanny trys to resist the advance of police forces pushing back community members who came to support the trial of Yorm Bopha and Tim Sakmony near the Phnom Penh Municipal Court. 26 Dec. 2012 © Nicolas Axelrod 2012 

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