A Wednesday morning in early September: bang in the middle of the week, close to the middle of the year. For many Phnom Penh residents, the day begins as normal.
But for the community of Boeung Kak Lake, today is special. It marks exactly one year since the incarceration of their hero and martyr, Yorm Bopha.
Bopha was arrested on September 4, 2012 and in December was sentenced to three years in prison for “committing intentional violence with aggravating circumstances”. Even after an appeal in June, she remains guilty of ordering her brothers to violently assault two motodops with an axe and a screwdriver, despite rights groups claiming the testimony to be inconsistent and the evidence weak.
But for Boeung Kak residents and NGOs alike, it is Bopha’s central role in the “Boeung Kak 15” that made her a target for the authorities. After the Municipality of Phnom Penh granted a 99-year lease of the 133 hectares of the Boeung Kak area to private developer Shikaku Inc. in February 2007, the Boeung Kak 15 protested against the forced evictions of the estimated 20,000 residents in the nine surrounding villages. Before her arrest, Bopha claimed to have been beaten and shocked by electric stun batons during peaceful protest, as well as verbally threatened, harassed and intimidated by police.
Exactly one year on at the anniversary protest, police are still intimidating protesters, cordoning off the remaining residential areas of Boeung Kak, and restricting residents from marching to the Wat Phnom pagoda and the Supreme Court. They go so far as to strike one resident.
Bopha’s husband, Lours Sakhorn, remains at the forefront of the campaign. Standing somberly outside the Supreme Court, with his nine-year-old son Lours Lihour darting between him and the demonstrators lining the gates, he speaks of how Bopha is using the handicraft skills she learned from other members of the Boeung Kak 15 to sew scarves and headbands in prison - with the dual aim of selling them to money for her family and taking her mind off her plight.
Though the handicrafts were originally aimed at local people, Sakhorn says they have attracted attention from the international community. He says: “I take the products that Bopha makes to be sold in the craft shop in the Boeung Kak community. They have been bought by NGO workers, both foreigners and Cambodian, visiting Boeung Kak.”
Sakhorn used to be a construction worker, but is now working full-time on his wife’s campaign - unpaid voluntary work that means he is no longer earning money to support himself and their son.
The family relies solely on the sale of Bopha’s handicrafts for income, which she started making and selling in a craft workshop in the Boeung Kak community prior to her arrest. Although the usual restrictions of incarceration apply, the prison guards allow Bopha four hours outside her room per day to work on her products.
Money has been so tight, says Sakhorn, that when Bopha was detained in Prey Sar prison up until June, he could only afford to travel the distance to visit her once a week. Thankfully, she has now been moved to the correctional centre Police Judiciare, in a district much nearer their Boeung Kak home and he can therefore visit twice or three times per week. However, life at home remains extremely difficult, particularly when it comes to bringing up Lihour.
“Right now living is a serious problem: my son is always dreaming about seeing his mother and crying.”
What do these actions tell us about the authorities one year on from Bopha’s arrest?
Sakhorn is despondent in his response: “The fact that the authorities aren’t allowing protesters to rally for the release of Yorm Bopha equates to the banning of freedom of expression and reveals that Cambodia is not democratic.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY KHOUTH SOPHAK CHAKRYA