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Cambodian activist first Southeast Asian to receive prestigious rights award

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The Venerable Luon Sovath (C) is detained by police, monks and unidentified plain-clothed men in Phnom Penh in May 2012. Photograph: Meng Kimlong/Phnom Penh Post

The Venerable Luon Sovath (C) is detained by police, monks and unidentified plain-clothed men in Phnom Penh in May 2012. Photograph: Meng Kimlong/Phnom Penh Post

Activist monk Luon Sovath has been named the recipient of this year’s Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders for his work promoting villagers’ land claims and publicising rights abuses.

A familiar figure at protests in Cambodia, including the widely decried May trial of the Boeung Kak 13, Sovath is the first Southeast Asian to receive the award, which was established in 1993 and is judged by 10 rights organisations including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

“The intention of the award is to provide recognition and protection,” said Martin Ennals Foundation director Michael Khambatta, adding that Sovath “has an innovative approach to human rights defence” and is a “forceful advocate” against forced evictions, which deserve more international attention.

According to Dr Pung Chhiv Kek, president of rights group Licadho, which has worked closely with the Buddhist monk, “he is the rare monk who is willing to use his standing as a religious authority figure to speak out against injustices in Cambodia …This is very threatening to authorities, because most Cambodians are very religious people”.

Known as “the multimedia monk”, Sovath has been filming confrontations with the government since 2009, when his video of police violently evicting villagers in Siem Reap province’s Chi Kraeng district undermined police claims that they had fired into the crowd in self-defence.

Since then, Sovath has supported the land claims of several communities, including those of Boeung Kak and Borei Keila, leading religious authorities to ban him from all pagodas in the capital and his province of Siem Reap last year.

In May, he himself became a YouTube hit when he was filmed being forced into a car at the aforementioned Boeung Kak protest, after which religious authorities threatened to defrock him if he did not cease his activism.

To contact the reporter on this story: Justine Drennan at justine.drennan@phnompenhpost.com

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