Jailed Yorm Bopha symbolizes a widespread problem in Cambodia – land grabs

Residents of a Phnom Penh neighborhood have had their land taken away by the government. Protesters like Yorm Bopha, a young mother, are trying to do something about it.

Samrang Pring/Reuters
A resident of Boeung Kak Lake cries during a protest in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Sept 4, 2013. The protesters, mostly women from the Boeung Kak community, called for a fair resolution to what they see as land grabs. They also were appealing for the release of jailed activist Yorm Bopha.

Splaying an an elfin hand atop the wooden table, Yorm Bopha says “Five hands wide. This is all the space we have to sleep, seven ladies, in a cell four meters by four meters [13 feet by 13 feet].”

The young mother was speaking at the prison in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where she has been detained for just over a year.

Also present were three of her neighbors – women like Yorm Bopha – who live at the edge of Boeung Kak Lake in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh. Actually, it's a former lake, as the waters have been replaced with a landfill on which a company called Shukaku – which is owned by senator from the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) – will build offices and apartments in partnership with a Chinese investor.

The case is probably the best known of the many land grabs that have made headlines in Cambodia in recent years.

Around the once-lively lakeside, many of the array of budget hotels and nice cafes are now boarded up, and a blue galvanized barrier rings the former lakeshore. More than 3,500 families have been evicted, pressured into taking insufficient compensation for their land in what is a prime location in Phnom Penh. Some residents have stayed and been granted land title, but others – around 90 families – have not.

At Boeung Kak, residents have turned into activists, but have run afoul of powerful and wealthy interests close to the government, leaving Yorm Bopha, listed by Amnesty International as a prisoner of conscience, at the sharp end of what is a widespread problem in Cambodia.

The Cambodian League for the Defence and Promotion of Human Rights released a study last year suggesting that “land grabbing has affected an estimated 400,000 Cambodians since 2003, helping to create a sizable under class of landless villagers with no means for self-sustenance.”

Yorm Bopha was accused of egging her brothers into attacking two men in August 2012, in what prosecutors alleged was a revenge attack after her car mirror was stolen. An analysis of the case by the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) suggests that the prosecution produced little evidence to back its charges, prompting CCHR Director Ou Virak to conclude that the arrest was little more than “a creative way of putting someone in jail and intimidating the community.”

Yorm Bopha captured the public's attention while campaigning for the release of 13 women and two men –  most of them her neighbors – who were jailed last year for protesting against evictions around the lake. She drew the attention of Cambodia's police, saying that before her arrest she “was on the blacklist” for her efforts on behalf of her neighbors, who are now free.

CCHR's Ou Virak told the Monitor that “once the 13 were released, they targeted her, but had to invent a new scheme.”

Now those neighbors are doing their bit for their jailed friend. Bo Chavy, one of the trio visiting her in jail, points out a bruise on her calf, the legacy of a confrontation with police two days previously, when around 150 of Yorm Bopha's friends marched through Phnom Penh to remind the public that the young woman had been in jail for a year – an injustice they feel should be righted.

A previous protest for Yorm Bopha's release, held in March, was forcibly dispersed, with police breaking several of Yorm Bopha's husband's teeth as well as knocking out an elderly neighbor.

Toward the end of the 45-minute chat with her visitors, Yorm Bopha disappears back to the cell area for a couple of minutes. Returning, she tips a small plastic bag onto the wooden table in the visitors area, revealing a half-dozen white knitted headbands.

“To wear tomorrow,” Yorm Bopha says to her friends, laughing that she didn't know how to knit before being jailed. “The white means peace, “ she explains.

The following day, Sept. 7, the three visitors attended a party rally in Phnom Penh, where the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) protested what they contend was a flawed election held July 28.

The CNRP says that more than 1 million Cambodians were denied the right to vote, and that an independent investigation into the alleged cheating should be held – though the CPP has ignored the CNRP, saying that it will govern based on the reduced majority it won July 28.

So have the land-grab protests and opposition party politics aligned? Have the Boeung Kak protesters given their full backing to Sam Rainsy, the opposition leader?

“I don't know about him, so much, but it would be better for Cambodia to have change,” says Yorm Bopha of Mr. Rainsy. She reminds her visitor that Prime Minister Hun Sen has been in office for almost three decades and has not done enough to halt land grabs, despite announcing a moratorium on concessions last year.

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