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After prison, activist Yorm Bopha stronger in fight against injustice

Yorm Bopha demonstrates outside a court in Phnom Penh in May last year.
Yorm Bopha demonstrates outside a court in Phnom Penh in May last year. Meng Kimlong

After prison, activist Yorm Bopha stronger in fight against injustice

You might assume that the last thing a released prisoner wants to do after 14 months inside is protest. Not so Yorm Bopha. Two days after her release on bail two weeks ago, the land rights activist was already demonstrating against forced evictions at Phnom Penh’s Borei Keila community. Last week, she joined monks to lead a march through the city to protest violence against women.

With fellow activist and friend Tep Vanny, she has also spent time with monks, giving them guidance on methods of protest. “Those who love justice need to join together and protest about the government,” Bopha explained at her home in Boeung Kak.

“We all need freedom,” she said.

Speaking after a long day’s march, with Vanny at her side, she said she was worried about her future. Although she is free for now, her case has been sent to the Appeal Court for a retrial.

“[The authorities] still suspect me. They still haven’t given me justice. I’m still worried about being arrested again, but I have no choice – I have to protest with the community and with other communities that have no justice, who the government has forcibly moved from their land.”

Bopha was arrested in September last year for allegedly ordering an assault on two motodops, a charge contested by Boeung Kak residents and rights groups alike. Many believe her activism, protesting the forced evictions of the Boeung Kak community by the government to make way for private development, led to her arrest.

She continued: “I am aware that in the future something bad might happen to me. But I made up my mind to protest. We need to keep fighting forever; if we give it up there will be no hope for the next generation.”

Though its fate hangs in the balance, for now, Bopha’s house in Boeung Kak provides welcome relief from the harsh living conditions of Prey Sar prison, where she was kept before being transferred to the more forgiving Police Judiciaire correctional facility in June.

Bopha described prison as “a dark place”, referring not to the physical light but the turmoil going through her mind, being wrongly imprisoned and separated from her husband and son.

She slept on the ground in a confined space that she shared with 10 other inmates. Nearby were more than 100 more, all of whom shared the same toilet. Bopha said they’d have to wait until a certain time to go, and by that time they’d all need it at once.

Tep Vanny, left, and Yorm Bopha, outside Bopha’s home in the Boeung Kak community.
Tep Vanny, left, and Yorm Bopha, outside Bopha’s home in the Boeung Kak community. Charlotte Pert

The surroundings were dirty and attracted all kinds of animals. Her first complaint, however, was about the food: thin soup with sparse grains of flavourless rice.

To get through her ordeal, Bopha distracted herself by making handicrafts. Using the skills taught to her by other Boeung Kak activists, she raised about $500 for her family by making scarves and headbands, which her husband Lours Sakhorn collected and sold to Boeung Kak residents and NGO workers.

Her skills became a talking point for other inmates, and it helped her to bond with the others. She said: “There were all sorts of criminals, but because of what happened to me I realised how unfair the justice system was. Police just arrest people based on what they think, with no evidence.”

Bopha added: “I definitely became stronger in prison. I was there for a whole year, suffering, getting more and more angry, more and more hungry for justice.”

One aspect of the Boeung Kak 15’s campaign that has given them worldwide recognition is that it is led predominantly by women. With husbands at work, it was the women who had the time and energy to demonstrate.

Has this exposed a subversion of gender roles to traditional Cambodia?

To some extent, yes, Bopha said: “Many people think that a woman’s responsibility is to care for her family, rather than to protest against police. But if men were leading the protest there would be more violence, because the police would be more likely to hit men. We don’t want the men to be on the front line.”

The work doesn’t stop in Phnom Penh. The pair have travelled to the provinces, where they have met with other land rights activists including monks in the Areng Valley, who have been demonstrating against the construction of a hydropower dam in Koh Kong.

Bopha said: “The government still has 63 more Boeung Kak families to evict. We still have a lot of work to do.”

She added: “We will keep going on forever until the government gives us freedom. As long as land grabbing is going on, I will stand with my community. I’m no longer afraid of the police arresting me or killing me. I can’t stop – I don’t have a choice.”

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