By Khuon Narim and Alex Willemyns, The Cambodia Daily, 29 November 2013
In June last year, Bov Srey Sras lost her unborn baby after being kicked in the stomach by a police officer at a public protest.
The incident, captured on camera, came as she stood outside the Court of Appeal calling for the release of her sister, who had been imprisoned after a three-hour trial.
Following her miscarriage, Srey Sras tried to sue the unknown police officer responsible for kicking her along with his superiors – a move that prompted a response from deputy Phnom Penh police chief Phoung Malay that many considered repugnant.
“Is the victim old or young, and does she sue me to return her kid?” Malay said to a Postreporter at the time. “I want to tell her that if she wants to get back her kid, I am also young.”
Authorities have taken no action over the violence or Malay’s comments.
As a coalition of NGOs, unions and protesters yesterday called on government forces to stop using violence against women, Srey Sras remained without compensation – or even a simple apology.
Following the fatal shooting of a 49-year-old female bystander during a police crackdown on protesting SL Garment workers in the capital’s Meanchey district on November 12, Srey Sras is not convinced that an apology will come.
“The authorities and police are continuing to make violence against women … and they’re now shooting at people.”
In the aftermath of Srey Sras’s miscarriage, National Police spokesman Kirt Chantharith said disciplinary measures would be taken against Malay, but only if it was proved he had made the comments.
Such action is unlikely to be made, as Phnom Penh police chief Chhuon Sovann recently told the Post that Malay had been made a spokesman for the municipal police, while retaining his title of deputy chief.
Malay could not be reached yesterday, while Sovann was unavailable to talk and Chantharith hung up on a reporter after saying he was too busy to comment.
In light of violent incidents against female demonstrators – and the authorities’ unwillingness to appropriately respond to them – the coalition’s statement yesterday called on government forces to stop using violence on women who take to the streets to defend their rights.
“As the international community celebrates the 16 Days of Activism to End Gender Violence from November 25 to December 10, we … call on the government to end violence against women perpetrated by its agents,” a statement reads.
The statement was issued by groups including Licadho, the Cambodian Center for Independent Media (CCIM) and the Boeung Kak and Borei Keila communities.
The coalition also called on authorities to launch independent investigations into all violent incidents against female protesters.
Incidents referenced included the SL Garment strike shooting, the electric shock and slingshot attack on women protesting at Wat Phnom on September 22, and the shooting of three garment workers in Svay Rieng province last year.
Then-Bavet town governor Chhouk Bandith, who was responsible for the Svay Rieng incident, injured three workers when he opened fire on a crowd of strikers. He has since been sentenced to prison but remains at large.
“Very few cases of violence against women by authorities have been investigated, and even fewer have resulted in appropriate punishment,” said Tephalline Ou, vice president of the Cambodian Food and Service Worker Federation (CFSWF), in the statement. “As long as this continues, violence against women will remain commonplace in Cambodia.”
The coalition called on the Ministry of Women’s Affairs as well as police to take the lead in bringing about change.
When contacted yesterday, Sy Define, secretary of state at the ministry, said she was too busy to comment as she was getting ready for a wedding. Minister of Women’s Affairs Ing Kantha Phavi could not be reached.
Recent reports have highlighted the high incidence of violence against women in Cambodia.
According to a UN report released in September, one in five Cambodian men has committed rape, but more than 44 per cent of them have never faced the legal consequences.
Naly Pilorge, director of Licadho, said in the coalition’s statement that the connection between violence in the public sphere and the private sphere could not be ignored.
“It is not surprising that Cambodia has such high levels of violence against women, when the authorities themselves use violence with impunity,” she said.
Today, the coalition will march from Wat Phnom in the capital to the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and the headquarters of the National Police.
Srey Sras, meanwhile, will continue pushing for action to be taken over her miscarriage.
“I’m still suffering and feel sorry that [Phnom Penh Municipal] Court has not processed my complaint,” she said. “I’ll keep waiting for police to say sorry.”
Shelving any thoughts that 14 months in prison had deterred her from protesting, Yorm Bopha rushed to the capital’s Borei Keila community yesterday morning to try to stop authorities from forcing evictees from an abandoned building.
Bopha was one of about 10 Boeung Kak activists called on to help after military police and security guards tried to remove a number of families from a building they once lived in, resulting in a disabled man being dragged out, villagers said.
“When we had heard, we went straight there,” said Bopha, who was released on bail from prison on Friday. “We told police to stop ejecting them from the building and offer them a solution first.
“There were many of us there, so police allowed them to stay inside temporarily.”
Borei Keila evictee Tim Sakmony, 65, said a group of military police and security guards dragged her son, Uon Kang Pinith, a disabled 47-year-old recyclables collector, out of the empty building after he had joined a number of families seeking shelter inside.
“His recyclables were getting stolen downstairs, so he tried to take them up there. But they dragged and pushed him out of the building.”
The officers then left Borei Keila, in the capital’s Prampi Makara district, threatening to return later to remove the other evictees, Sakmony said. As of last night, the families were still staying on the first floor.
It’s been almost two years since hundreds of residents were violently evicted from their homes at the site.
Developer Phan Imex had agreed to build 10 high-rise buildings to house more than 1,700 families in exchange for the land on which their houses lay. However, the company built only eight of the 10 high-rises and relocated those who missed out to the squalor of relocation sites far from the capital.
Those who refused relocation have lived in tents behind the eight buildings since.
After heavy rain on Friday and Saturday, the ground on which the evictees’ tents are pitched was a mixture of mud and rubbish yesterday. The site, where everyone from small children to the elderly eat, sleep and wash in, stunk of human waste.
“Living here is getting worse because of the disgusting smell,” Sakmony said. “We are busy protesting, so we don’t have enough time to make money to buy food.”
Following her release from PJ prison on Friday evening, Bopha pledged to “struggle until she died” to keep protesting for the rights of communities such as Boeung Kak and Borei Keila.
“Even though . . . I face being arrested again, I will keep joining peaceful demonstrations to defend our rights.”
Bopha – who also joined a protest at a pagoda in Russey Keo district yesterday – said that before releasing her, authorities had warned her not to protest with fellow Boeung Kak activist Tep Vanny.
“I will not stop. I need to find justice for myself and other communities,” she said.
On Friday, the Supreme Court sent her case back to the Appeal Court for a retrial.
“Even though the Supreme Court is releasing me, they still consider me guilty,” she said after the hearing. “I’m scared they will arrest me again – just like they did with Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun,” she added, referring to the two men wrongfully imprisoned for the murder of union leader Chea Vichea.
The activist was arrested in September last year, accused of ordering her brothers to beat two motodops with an axe and screwdriver at Boeung Kak.
She was sentenced to three years in prison, a term reduced to two years on appeal in June.
Bopha’s husband, Lous Sakhorn, 57, was convicted on the same charge, but his sentence was suspended.
Rights groups have called allegations against both of them baseless and aimed at silencing their community.
Phnom Penh’s chief prosecutor yesterday attributed an alleged rise in Cambodia’s crime rate to an increase in public demonstrations.
Prosecutor general of Phnom Penh Municipal Court Ouk Savuth’s theory came out during a speech he made at a meeting of police and prosecutors held at City Hall on the topic of how police and prosecutors can curb crime.
“According to reports from all provincial and municipal courts, crime has increasingly occurred every year in our country,” Savuth said yesterday. “According to my own observation, I think the reason why the crime rate is increasing each year is because there have been so many demonstrations in Cambodia.”
Giving little in the way of solid data, Savuth proposed that when a large group of people get together in a public space, criminals invariably infiltrate the ranks and cause a ruckus. A report from Phnom Penh Municipal Court says 3,397 cases were brought before the court between the start of the year and November 15.
Savuth did not release figures for the number of reported crimes in years past.
The allegation of political and labour demonstrations being to blame for a heightened crime rate surprised Eang Vuthy, director of rights group Equitable Cambodia.
“This is a very baseless thing to say,” Vuthy said, expressing his disappointment with Savuth’s attitude toward demonstrations.
“This is very one-sided, and he’s supposed to work for the state, he’s not supposed to be working for any political party.”
Police are usually the perpetrators of violence at public demonstrations, Vuthy added, citing a demonstration of striking garment workers in Meanchey district last week that ended with a bystander being shot dead when police opened fire with live ammunition into the crowd of hundreds.
Demonstrators are usually not criminals, Vuthy said, but people with real needs.
“For the garment workers, they demonstrated for better working conditions, better salaries and respect for the worker rights,” Vuthy said. “The people who create problems are the human-rights abusers.”
When the Supreme Court hears land-rights activist Yorm Bopha’s final appeal this morning, familiar cries for justice will come from Boeung Kak women on the streets outside.
Much has been written about the housewives of Boeung Kak who have risen up against the government and developers to protest mass land evictions – dissent that has led to beatings and imprisonment.
But much less has been documented about the people they have swapped domestic roles with: their husbands.
“When the community began protesting five years ago, the women understood the context of Cambodia,” Housing Rights Task Force secretariat director Sia Phearum said yesterday. “People at that time were traumatised and too scared to protest, because people who did were often killed or arrested.”
The Boeung Kak community believed putting women on the front line at protests was a way to reduce such violence while still getting their message across, Phearum said. Such a move, they thought, would also allow men to keep working to pay the bills.
As activism has become an almost full-time job for some of the women in the years since, a culture shift has occurred in these households, Phearum added.
“The men have become house husbands.”
The streets of Boeung Kak’s Village 22 were almost bereft of women on Wednesday afternoon. Tep Vanny, the community’s most prominent activist, was in a meeting in the city.
“Our lives have become stressful,” said Ou Kongchea, Vanny’s husband, who was working at home. “These protests have had a huge effect on my life.”
Like other husbands in Boeung Kak, Kongchea has stood in the shadows, lending support as his wife has rapidly become a public figure.
“When my wife joins the protests, I need to do everything in the home,” he said. “I take care of our two children and go to the market to buy vegetables to cook.”
Being the husband of a well-known dissident also has its professional challenges.
“First, my [boss] began pressuring me,” the former military employee said. “Then local authorities from the Daun Penh district filed a complaint to my commander accusing me of using an illegal gun. If that were a real complaint, I would have been arrested.”
After taking unpaid leave from his position, Kongchea now works from home making picture frames.
“I’ve got less money than before and things are much harder,” he said.
Vanny is known for getting in the faces of police and security guards. She has been beaten, and spent more than a month in Prey Sar prison last year.
Kongchea said the thought of his wife protesting still makes him stressed. But he sees the importance of it.
“Most Cambodians think women should stay at home to cook the food, support the family and look after the children, not go outside to demonstrate,” he said. “But if a man protests, the authorities will use deadly violence. They shoot.”
Yorm Bopha’s husband, Lous Sakhorn, 57, has spent more than a year raising his nine-year-old son alone.
“When my wife was arrested and imprisoned, my family faced a food shortage,” he said. “I was busy looking after my son, doing the housework and visiting my wife in prison – I didn’t have enough time to earn money.
“At my age, it’s difficult raising a child by myself … but I will keep protesting until my wife is freed.”
Bopha, 30, was arrested in September last year and sentenced in December to three years in prison – later reduced to two years on appeal – after she was convicted of ordering an assault on two motodops. Rights groups say the charges are baseless.
Fellow Boeung Kak villager Ly Heap, 40, also saw his wife, Bov Sophea, imprisoned last year. After a three-hour trial, Sophea was one of 13 women, including Vanny, locked in Prey Sar.
The challenge of managing a household in the face of evictions, imprisonment and job loss – Heap worked at the now-bankrupt telephone company Mfone – has taken its toll.
“When I was working at Mfone and my wife protested, I had no time to look after my children,” he said. “Sometimes no one would be at home, so they would follow their mother to the protest.”
When times are tough at Boeung Kak, though, the men look out for each other, Kongchea said.
“We’re good friends, but we haven’t formed a network,” he said. “We understand each other, but we’re not active like the women are.”
But they are just as tired.
The release of Bopha, Kongchea said, and the issuing of land titles to dozens of remaining families, would be key steps towards things calming down.
“If this goes on, I think our living conditions will get worse,” he said. “We need to stop protests when the case of Yorm Bopha is completely resolved.”
But the women, who have branched out to support other human-rights causes in recent years, may have other ideas.
In any case, role reversals are not a bad thing, HRTF’s Phearum said.
“If I cook, I might be accused of not being a real man or something … but I think with globalisation and economic development, these things have to change,” he said.
The Supreme Court has ordered the release of Boeung Kak land activist Yorm Bopha – but only on bail – after ruling that her case should be sent back to the Court of Appeal for a retrial.
Khem Pon, one of five judges presiding over Bopha’s appeal, said the appellate body, which heard the case in June, did not address some of the evidence presented.
“The Supreme Court moves this criminal complaint back to the Appeal Court for further investigation and a retrial.”
Hundreds of Bopha’s supporters, many from the Boeung Kak community, joined with monks outside the Supreme Court for the hearing.
After little more than two hours of testimony and judges’ deliberation, Bopha walked from court to an awaiting prison van and the cheers of the ecstatic crowd on the streets outside.
Her own feelings, however, were mixed.
“Even though the Supreme Court is releasing me, they still consider me guilty. I’m scared they will arrest me again – just like they did with Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun,” she said, referring to the two men wrongly imprisoned over the murder of union leader Chea Vichea.
“The Supreme Court should have dropped the charges against me.”
Bopha was arrested in September of last year and accused of ordering her two brothers to beat two motodops at Boeung Kak with an axe and screwdriver. She was sentenced in December to three years in prison. Rights groups say the charges are baseless.
Bopha’s lawyer, Ham Sunrith, said after the hearing that the Supreme Court had not specified when the case would be reheard.
“But she will be released on bail today.”
Speaking outside the court, Rupert Abbott, Amnesty International’s Cambodia researcher, welcomed Bopha’s release.
“But we’re disappointed this whole saga is continuing,” he said. “She should never have been arrested in the first place. She shouldn’t have spent any time in prison.… This case is symbolic of a trend where human rights defenders are a target for their legitimate work.”
But E Sophors, president of motodops group the Cambodia Confederation Development Association, said the court had given the complainants, motodops Vath Thaiseng and Nget Chet, no justice.
“The Supreme Court did not order the suspects to pay compensation or uphold [Bopha’s] prison sentence,” he said. “But when the authorities … arrest Bopha’s brothers, everything will become clear. And everybody including local and international NGOs will understand who masterminded the attack.”
Vath Sarath, the father and uncle of the alleged victims, also said the Supreme Court should have demanded compensation be paid.
“The judges have not responded to the victims here. They are the victims of violence.”
In the courtroom earlier, Sunrith, Bopha’s lawyer, said the lower courts had ordered Bopha and her husband, Lous Sakhorn, to pay the motodops $15,000 in compensation.
“But I’ve checked medical bills that the victim gave the court – they totalled about $15,” he said.”
Just days before the Supreme Court hears the final appeal of imprisoned land-rights activist Yorm Bopha, a letter obtained yesterday reveals that Phnom Penh Governor Pa Socheatvong has met with Bopha’s husband and her accusers after both parties requested intervention to “end the case”.
According to the letter, Lous Sakhorn, Bopha’s husband, asked Socheatvong to intervene and have his wife freed from prison, while her alleged victims, motodops Vat Thaiseng and Nget Chet, “also asked Phnom Penh City Hall to intervene to end this case”.
City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche said yesterday that Sakhorn and Bopha’s father, Yorm Yen, had “reconciled” with the alleged victims during meetings at City Hall last Friday.
“To me, when both sides agree to reconcile with one another, it means the plaintiff has dropped the charges against the defendant,” Dimanche said.
But E Sophors, president of motodops group the Cambodia Confederation Development Association, said the intervention the alleged victims sought was more about being paid compensation.
“We need compensation for the treatment of our members. Dropping the charges should be decided by the court,” he said.
The letter bears the thumbprints of Socheatvong, Sakhorn, Yen, a City Hall official, a lawyer, both alleged victims and Sophors.
Sakhorn, 57, said yesterday that he was asked to appear at City Hall on Friday by Sok Penhvuth, the deputy chief of Daun Penh district, along with Yen, to negotiate with his wife’s two alleged victims.
According to the letter, both parties requested intervention in letters sent earlier this month.
Last December, Bopha was convicted on a charge of intentional violence after the court ruled she had ordered a screwdriver and axe attack on the two motodops at Boeung Kak.
She was sentenced to three years in prison, a sentence that was effectively reduced to two years when she appealed in June.
During her appeal trial, a judge said the testimony of Bopha’s accusers contradicted earlier statements they had made, while rights groups say charges against her were motivated by her land activism.
Yesterday, nearly 100 lotus-wielding activists rallied outside the capital’s Supreme Court building, calling for Bopha’s release ahead of her final appeal hearing on Friday.
The imprisoned woman’s 8-year-old son was by his father’s side during the protest.
Demonstrators circulated around the Supreme Court building three times to the thrum of a drumbeat, tossing paper copies of the accusations lodged against Bopha into a bowl, which were then lit on fire and left to smoulder.
Boeung Kak representative Tep Vanny, 32, who was among the supporters, said she was hopeful Bopha would be released.
“This is her last chance, but whatever the Supreme Court’s decision, she must see justice – we can’t ever lose hope,” Vanny said, adding that she had visited Bopha in prison only yesterday.
Amnesty International launched a worldwide campaign yesterday calling for Bopha’s release, involving activists in more than 30 different countries.
Rupert Abbott, the organisations’s researcher on Cambodia, told the Post yesterday that Bopha’s release would be a step forward for human rights in Cambodia.
“Amnesty International considers Yorm Bopha a prisoner of conscience. Thousands of our members around the world are taking action to call for her immediate and unconditional release,” he said.