The sight of Borei Keila and Boeung Kak lake protesters huddled like animals in a tiny cage outside the Ministry of Justice last week drew the attention of university student Rathana.
The 22-year-old is not usually fazed by protesting – she’s seen it all before and doesn’t care much for it.
“I’m very bored with all this protesting,” she said. “But I have to say, this time I’m actually quite impressed.”
Many of Rathana’s friends, who milled nearby, agreed the average protest had lost its appeal – but the use of cages and metre-high paper houses to call for the release of two imprisoned villagers? Now that was more like it.
In the midst of what rights groups have described as a dark year for freedom of expression and human rights in Cambodia, protesters have become more than a part-time fixture on the streets of Phnom Penh.
Land-eviction protesters have shackled themselves in chains, stripped to their underwear and released a CD of songs to convey their messages. But these creative displays have been intermittent; mostly, protesters have marched to ministries, embassies or royal residences, filed petitions and left.
Boeung Kak villager representative Tep Vanny is concerned apathy, like that shown by Rathana and her friends, could increase if protests start feeling like part of the landscape.
“We’re worried we won’t get support from the local and international communities at a high level if we continue to protest using the same old methods again and again,” she said, explaining the reason for the cage and other recent props including bird’s nest hats and candles spelling the name of the imprisoned Yorm Bopha.
“So we’ve created a new method. It’s aimed at attracting more people and relevant authorities.”
The rise of people power
The “land crisis” has created a core group of experienced, dedicated grassroots organisers in Cambodia, said Dr Pung Chhiv Kek, president of Licadho.
“This didn’t exist in Cambodia – at least not to this extent – until very recently,” she said.
“People in Cambodia haven’t traditionally used public protest as their first option. They still don’t – the kinds of protests we’re seeing now come from desperation, and it’s only quite recently that we’ve seen the number of protests really mushroom.”
Kek, however, said she did not believe the sheer number of protests detracted from the legitimacy of the evictees’ message or made target audiences lose interest.
“I would look at it from the opposite perspective.
“Protests are a barometer of people’s restlessness with the status quo. The more protests we see, the more indication that people have no other means of recourse.”
Furthermore, Kek said, the protesters’ message remained fresh until they were given a resolution.
Independent political analyst Chea Vannath said protesters had already achieved success by mixing things up.
“To a certain group of people, it does get boring over and over again . . . but usually this depends on things like their age and social status,” she said.
“But the protesters always have new actions to get results. One action leads to another result . . . this is leading to change.”
Protesting at the polls
As next year’s national election drew nearer, protesters would become even more daring and creative, independent political analyst Lao Mong Hay said.
“People have become more innovative, vigilant,” he said.
“A few months ago, Boeung Kak lake villagers took off their tops. That kind of civil disobedience, people are more aware of now. I believe it will become more common.”
When protesters marched in Phnom Penh on Monday with small model houses on their heads, Phnom Penh Municipal Hall spokesman Long Dimanche accused villagers of making a career out of protesting.
“We always see the same faces,” he said. “They find any excuse to go against the government.”
But Mong Hay said the protesters’ willingness to keep fighting even as the government introduced more “repressive measures” showed their problems were real.
“These people have real grievances,” he said. “And protesters have actually been more imaginative and have invented new strategies.”
Mong Hay said he believed protesting had been instrumental in the government releasing 13 Boeung Kak lake women imprisoned in May and its decision to place a moratorium on economic land concessions.
“They have defied the authorities and felt more injustices than ever before . . . as a result, we’re seeing increasing sympathy and support for them,” he said.
The political landscape, however, was still very much divided, Mong Hay said.
“A lot of [this protesting] appears to be consolidating the power base of opposition support rather than changing how people vote.
“It’s very difficult to see how it would translate into votes.”
Uncertainty as construction looms
Not knowing when and how their housing woes will end is pushing protesters in new directions, Housing Rights Task Force secretariat-general Sia Phearum says.
“People have been looking for other ways to find a solution.
“Last week [with the cage] was an example. But they still don’t know how they can find justice. That’s why they are trying to find more strategies.”
Some Boeung Kak villagers, Phearum said, were in Bangkok last week mixing with Thai residents in similar situations, and one Boeung Kak woman had even travelled to Germany to spread her message.
Foreign camera crews are known to shadow Tep Vanny through Boeung Kak streets and she receives requests for interviews and invitations to join human-rights forum panels.
Since the government awarded 114 hectares of the now filled-in lake to Shukaku Inc, which is headed by CPP senator Lao Meng Khin, in 2007, Vanny has been at the forefront of hundreds of protests.
News that Shukaku is recruiting staff for Boeung Kak has consolidated her view that protesting must continue – but in a slightly different form.
“When construction begins, we plan to do more protesting,” she said, adding that construction would not be blocked and protesters would focus on finding more innovative ways to express dissent.
The challenge of keeping the message fresh was hard and had taken a toll on her, Vanny said. But Phearum said it did not have to be this way.
“Why should it always be the villagers finding new ways to protest and not the government finding a peaceful solution to their land problems?” he said.