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Yorm Bopha: Cambodia's fearless land rights activist

Neither prison nor constant threats have stopped Bopha from continuing to fight against the Boeung Kak Lake evictions.

Yorm Bopha (L) gestures to her supporters as she attends a hearing in the Supreme Court in Phnom Penh, 27 March 2013. REUTERS/Samrang Pring

In an interview for IFEX's 8 March 2014 Women's Day action, Yorm Bopha said:

... I want to push Cambodian women to speak the truth. Because if we don't speak, no one will know about our problems and no one can help us. Being a vocal person I face a lot of risks, such as being murdered, or jailed, and other risks too - but these do not discourage me.

The draining of a formerly picturesque lake in Cambodia and the forcible displacement of thousands of residents living on the water's edge has led to the creation of a vigorous land rights movement that is led largely by women. Prominent among them is Yorm Bopha, who has described herself as a "simple housewife" turned campaigner, and who remains undaunted in her passion to stop the evictions and for residents to claim their rights to their land despite a spell in prison and constant threats.

Boeung Kak Lake was a large urban wetland in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh. Its waterside cafes and restaurants attracted tourists, providing a living for local residents. In 2007 came the announcement that the lake had been sold for U.S. $80m to a Chinese company that would drain the lake, filling it with sand, with plans to build an elite residential area. By 2010 90% of the lake had been filled, and over 3,000 residents evicted, forced to resettle to the city outskirts. The environmental impact includes flooding risks and the disappearance of fish and agricultural land on the lake's banks that had also been an important source of income for the local community.

With no rights to the land, those who lived by the lake struggled to hold onto their homes and were compelled to accept inadequate compensation payments. Inevitably this led to protests and, in May 2012, 13 women- ranging from 25 to 72 years in age - were each sentenced to 2 ½ years in prison for their involvement after a trial that lasted just three hours. Explaining why the Boeung Kak protests are dominated by women, Yorm Bopha told the Women's News Network in 2013: First, men lose their head too quickly and as a result can instigate violence, and we didn't want violence during our protests. Second, many men in our community work for the police or the army. So if they participated in the protests, they would have most likely lost their jobs.

Outraged at what became known as the Boeung Kak 13 arrests, Yorm Bopha and her husband, Lours Sakhorn, became central to the campaign to release the women. They were threatened by police, who warned that they were on a blacklist and should expect the worst.

The Boeung Kak 13 were released a month later following an intense campaign inside and outside Cambodia. Then came Yorm Bopha's turn. She was arrested in September 2012 and in December, she was accused of "intentional violence with aggravating circumstances" against two taxi drivers who had challenged protesters at a demonstration. She was sentenced to three years in prison after a contentious trial. Amnesty International referred to there being 'no evidence against [Yorm] and inconsistent witness testimonies', citing her as a prisoner of conscience. Her supporters pointed out that her visibility during the protests and her outspokenness in the media made her a target. Again campaigners swung into action, staging protests for her release, and, as had happened at other demonstrations, they were met with violence. Lours Sakhorn was among six people seriously injured outside the Prime Minister's residency in March 2013. He lost several teeth and suffered leg injuries. In November 2013, Yorm Bopha was released on bail.

Yorm Bopha's experience did nothing to dampen her zeal and she threw herself back into campaigning. In January 2014, she was among five women briefly arrested when they demonstrated for the release of another land rights activist in the face of a blanket ban against all protests.

In a video posted on-line by the International Federation for Human Rights in December 2014, shot at the Boeung Kak site, Yorm Bopha tells of the land rights activists' continuing struggle in the face of threats and surveillance. She calls on governments and international donors to demand that Cambodia respect human rights, and for redress for those who had lost their land.


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