Five months behind bars has done nothing to deter Phnom Penh’s Boeung Kak activists from taking their demands to the streets.
Just one day after their release from the capital’s Prey Sar prison, the female activists – often at the helm of Phnom Penh demonstrations – vowed yesterday to continue protesting for “as long as land disputes and social injustices remain”.
“I will still advocate and peacefully protest to demand solutions and justice for all the victims in Cambodian society, even if I will be imprisoned or killed by the authorities,” Boeung Kak leader Tep Vanny told the Post from her home yesterday.
Vanny and six other Boeung Kak activists were arrested during a protest in November, and convicted a day later for violating the Traffic Law by using a wooden bed to block the capital’s Monivong Boulevard.
On the day of the women’s trial, another two Boeung Kak women were arrested, along with Phoung Sopheap, a land activist from Phnom Penh’s airport community, and Buddhist monk Soeun Hai.
The four, who had been protesting outside the courtroom, were also convicted at breakneck speed for “intentionally inciting violence against a public authority”.
Vanny yesterday expressed her gratitude at the group’s release, which was granted under King Norodom Sihamoni’s annual Khmer New Year royal pardon following negotiations between Prime Minister Hun Sen and opposition leader Sam Rainsy.
But, she said, they should never have been arrested in the first place.
Dismissing claims from the ruling Cambodian People’s Party that the women had “accepted their guilt,” Vanny said they had in fact been used by the party as pawns in a political power play.
“The ruling party arrested and accused us, the land activists, as a pretext to put pressure on the opposition to accept [conditions for] the reformed National Election Committee. But we are not political activists, we are just community land rights protesters,” she said.
Vanny, like many of the other released activists, spent more than a month in prison in 2012 for obstructing public officials and illegally occupying land in a protest against Boeung Kak developer Shukaku. This time around, she said, life behind bars was even more difficult.
“One day, some of our members fainted and were taken to hospital, but the prison guards said they had pretended. Later on, they locked the doors and wouldn’t let us outside to get some air, saying we are Boeung Kak women and like inciting violence,” she said.
Just a week ago, Vanny and two of the other activists hit their heads against the wall until they fell unconscious after being denied any time outside of their cell.
The guards had said “if we were furious and wanted to commit suicide, please do”, she recalled.
Seventy-six-year-old Nget Khun echoed Vanny’s complaints.
Khun – who is known universally as “Mummy” – said the cell she shared with more than 60 other inmates got unbearably hot. But Prey Sar’s months-long water shortage and “dictatorial” guards meant that she could neither get water to cool herself, nor leave to get fresh air.
“The food in jail is not enough … and sleeping is difficult, too; sometimes I slept sitting with my knees upright, and sometimes I slept on the floor,” she added.
Kong Chantha, another of the released Boeung Kak activists, said guards tried to turn other inmates against them by using them as the reason that all prisoners were being confined in their cells.
Kuy Bunsorn, director general of the Interior Ministry’s General Department of Prisons, could not be reached yesterday.
While the 11 activists were released on Saturday, others believed to be held for political reasons, including opposition activists and monks, are expected to be released following a bail hearing today.
Opposition member “Meach Sovannara and other activists including two monks will be released tomorrow after the municipal court opens a hearing about their case,” CNRP lawmaker Eng Chhai Eang said in a statement yesterday.