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Activist swaps protests for rural life

Pech Sotheary / Khmer Times Share:
Yorm Bopha, front, at a protest in June 2015 in front of the National Assembly in Phnom Penh. She now prefers the life of a farmer. KT/Fabien Mouret

The families who once lived around Boeung Kak lake in Phnom Penh have been protesting since 2007.

Thousands have been relocated over the past decade after the lake was filled in to make way for a high-end housing development by Shukaku Inc.

Community members from the area, mostly women, have been tirelessly protesting and advocating for housing rights over the years.

Yorm Bopha, who is currently fighting to clear her name of an intentional violence conviction in the Supreme Court, is one of those protesters.

The 37-year-old, who is originally from Battambang province, ran into trouble with the law in 2012 after demonstrating to demand the release of 15 Boeung Kak community representatives imprisoned for their role in protests.

Ms Bopha and her husband Lous Sakhorn were arrested in September of that year after she was accused of ordering her two brothers to beat two motodop drivers who were working in Boeung Kak’s village 21 with an axe and a screwdriver.

She denied the accusations, calling them baseless and made on account of her “powerful” role in protesting the Boeung Kak lake evictions.

Once a prominent figure in the land rights movement, Ms Bopha has shied away from the limelight in the past two years, turning instead to a quiet life raising livestock in Kampong Chhnang province.

“I was pregnant and had a baby, so I took a rest from advocacy for a while,” she said. “It does not mean I have quit forever.”

A prominent figure in the land rights movement, Ms Bopha has shunned the limelight in the past two years. Reuters

“If we want to help society, we have to help ourselves. For eight years, we abandoned our jobs to advocate until we had nothing left,” she added.

Ms Bopha had lived in the Boeung Kak community since 1993 after moving there from Thailand’s Khao I Dang refugee camp.

Her problems began when the government decided to hand Boeung Kak lake to Shukaku Inc. for development in 2007.

At first, we were just ordinary citizens, not activists, but when we were faced with threats to leave the area, the women in the community discussed what to do and decided to advocate for our plight to state institutions everywhere,” she said.

She was also sentenced to three years in prison by Phnom Penh Municipal Court for intentional violence against the two motodop drivers. She served 444 days in prison, while the rest of the sentence was suspended.

“There was fighting at that time, but I was not there. After the fighting was over, I showed up and they accused me of bringing my relatives to beat the motodop drivers. I believe that I and other Boeung Kak women were targeted for protesting strongly,” she claimed.

However, Prime Minister Hun Sen said at the time that it was in fact the government which had suffered injustice, since Boeung Kak protesters used violence against others but claimed to be land rights activists.

After Ms Bopha’s conviction, nearly 30 civil society organisations issued statements condemning the court’s decision, claiming the case was politically motivated and there was a lack of evidence against her.

In addition to being imprisoned, Ms Bopha has experienced personal problems as a result of her activism.

Her first husband was unhappy with her taking part in protests on the streets. Once she was released from prison, the two decided to divorce.

Ms Bopha later married former CNRP lawmaker Real Camerin in December 2014. But the relationship also broke down due to her activism.

“He also did not want me to protest or get arrested by the authorities or security guards like in the past,” she said. “He thought it was inappropriate when we got married because I had the title ‘Her Excellency’. Although we have not yet officially divorced, we now live separately.”

The birth of her youngest son was what pushed her to put her activism on hold and move to Kampong Chhnang province. Once her children are grown up, she plans to return to advocacy work again.

Despite all of the ups and downs, Ms Bopha is proud to have been awarded the James Lawson Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Practice of Nonviolent Action for her land protests.

She beat more than 60 other participants from various nations in 2013.

Protesters call for the release of Ms Bopha after her arrest on assault charges. Reuters

“The great success of this advocacy is that I received that award and shared a lot of information about land issues in Cambodia with the international community,” she said. “I also gained a lot of experience in relation to non-violent advocacy from people from more than 60 countries.”

The work of Ms Bopha and others has also had a positive impact at home.

The government has issued a sub-decree promising the Boeung Kak community more than 12 hectares of land that was initially earmarked for development.

More than 700 families will be able to develop homes on the site, although only a handful of people have received land titles so far.

Another Boeung Kak activist, Tep Vanny, is currently detained in prison, for obstructing and insulting public officials during a 2011 protest outside Phnom Penh City Hall.

Ms Bopha said she had intended to take part in activities to demand the release of Ms Vanny, but stayed silent since Ms Vanny had not requested action.

Now Ms Bopha and her sister are focussing on their farm in Kampong Chhnang province instead, where they are raising about 200,000 fish, 40,000 chickens and 700 pigs.

“The farmland belongs to our mother. My sister wanted to raise livestock and grow vegetables for consumption within the family, then we came up with the idea of expanding the farm,” she said.

“We have done it for several years. The capital came from my sister. Some people said the money was paid to me for protests or that I got it fraudulently in the United States. I have only been to the US once. Those are just baseless accusations.”

Although Ms Bopha has turned to a simple rural life, she said she is still being monitored by the authorities.

Others have also urged her to become a commune chief, but she refuses.

She is adamant that she will stay out of civil society work until her second child is at least five or six years old. Despite this, Ms Bopha has a message for other land rights activists and social advocates.

“Please continue your action, do not stop, but make your case from a place of real emotion,” she said. She also has a plea to the government: “Please consider citizens and their livelihoods before any development, and avoid doing things without considering the consequences and pain that people will endure.”

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