When Boeung Kak lake protesters converged on the Phnom Penh Municipal Court to demand justice for imprisoned activist Yorm Bopha last month, an increasingly familiar face was at the front.
After her fellow activists chanted, released birds from a cage and then dispersed, Song Srey Leap, 27, remained at the court’s entrance.
Crying, she continued screaming for justice as police – who likely recognised the face before them – watched her every move.
A year ago, Srey Leap wasn’t an activist. Her community was in the grip of an enduring land dispute and her mother was a regular protester, but Srey Leap was only a silent observer.
“I would only sometimes attend protests, on the weekend, when I wasn’t working,” she said yesterday. “But I never spoke with police. I was only ever watching.”
Almost a year ago, things changed. Srey Leap was arrested with 12 other women as she observed another protest, she said.
The group, soon known as the “Boeung Kak 13”, was sentenced – in a three-hour trial – to two-and-a-half years in Prey Sar prison.
“Some women came back to our village and said officials were receiving orders on walkie-talkies to begin arresting women,” Srey Leap said of the events leading to her arrest. “I heard this and went to the [nearby protest] to warn people to come back.”
Soon after, Srey Leap was detained on the sand dunes of Boeung Kak as she headed home with Phan Chhunreth, who was also arrested and imprisoned.
Although released on appeal 34 days later, the women’s convictions – for encroaching on private property and disputing authority – remained.
“I felt very angry with authorities,” said Srey Leap, who is the youngest of the 13. “I didn’t do anything wrong. I tried to explain this to police when I was arrested, but they didn’t listen.
“During our three-hour trial, I was questioned for two minutes. It ended with the court clerk saying police wouldn’t have arrested me if I’d done nothing wrong.”
The treatment of the women and two others detained at their trial and sent to Prey Sar was widely condemned last year. Critics accused the government of trying to silence protesters.
If that was its aim, Srey Leap’s arrest had the opposite effect – in prison, her silence gave way to forthright dissent.
“I’d never been to a prison before. I felt like my life was ruined,” she said. “I was surrounded by people who had done things like stolen a bag – and they were serving three to five years. Yet we know of corrupt officials who have been convicted of crimes and are still free.
“When we were in prison, I thought, ‘If I can get out, I will make a plan to find our community a resolution.’”
Since her release, Srey Leap has been at most Boeung Kak protests, often at the forefront. Her mother, Ieng Bunnary, has protested less and focused more on providing for the family, leaving her daughter to become an almost full-time activist.
The 27-year-old acts as a communications officer for the Boeung Kak community, and when she’s not protesting, she’s often devising better ways to protest.
“I’m not protesting because I’m angry with the authorities. I feel angry, sure, but I don’t want revenge. I want a solution for the people.
“And it’s not just about Boeung Kak for me now – we need the courts to stop corruption and stop the powerful controlling them. They need to follow the rule of law and give everyone justice – even the poor.”
The likely attempt to stifle the Boeung Kak activists appeared to have backfired, said Sia Phearum, secretariat director of rights group Housing Rights Task Force.
“I think the authorities gave experience to them,” he said. “After they went to prison, they saw more injustice around them.
“We have found them doing more after prison. Srey Leap especially has become more active. She doesn’t want to sleep – she has found the issues around her serious.”