"TEP VANNY , THE INDOMITABLE CAMBODIAN LADY" NATIONAL ELECTION 2013 (text by Clothilde Le Coz)

Her almost broken voice can instantly be recognized, but not forgotten.
Vanny started screaming her sincerity in front of her house in 2006 to
defend the land rights of the people of Boeung Kak community; she ended
up speaking the same words in a microphone in Washington DC when she was
granted the Vital Voices Award in 2013. She never learned English for
she had no time and stopped school after the 9th grade. “But I
remembered the words of media interviewing me”, she smiles. Vanny was
arrested five times.

Children are running all over the place. At the back of the noisy room,
shelves are standing, exhibiting folders and the crystal Award she
brought back from the United-States. Vanny explains she has been
criticized on TV since then. Six “jealous” people have been weak enough
to be paid by the government to publicly put her down. They called Vanny
“selfish” because she kept all the money’s award to herself. “I was very
surprised that the government uses six people against me. I am not the
one running for the elections here!” she states very seriously. Her eyes
are full of resentment; the news segment is running three or four times
a day and she knows very well the faces that discredit her, live, all
over the country. “It has been seven years we have been fighting for our
houses not to be torn down and to continue living on our land. We could
not tell it to the world. But today, only six people can address a wrong
message on TV to the whole world”, she says irritated.

In the room, walls are covered with pictures of demonstrations, people
running, crying and screaming. Phone numbers are written all over the
yellowish paint. This was Vanny’s shop before it became the HQ of a
community’s ongoing struggle with Goliath. A hundred meters away from
her home, is the Boeung Kak Lake that was filled with sand and sold to a
foreign company to develop a touristic resort. People are living all
around this giant pile of sand now; most of them were evicted and the
ones remaining are sleeping next to an old railway.

“We are white and they are painting us in black. But only people who
have a real heart can truly fight for their rights”, Vanny tells about
the fight of the Boeung Kak community against the authorities. Since
2006, military forces, police and private security company have been
used to evict over 300 families from Boeung Kak. They have been calling
for biased justice rule their land, costing 13 members of the community
to be thrown to jail – including Vanny. Now, she does not want Cambodia
to become “like Pol Pot again”.

At just 30 years old, she grew up in a family of nine people, who still
support her. Her mum is coming with her to every demonstration and her
Dad tells her to focus on “her things to do good” from Omliang, where he
lives. When Boeung Kak was still a lake, never would have Vanny imagined
she would become one of the indomitable Cambodians. People from Boeung
Kak had to organize as a community. “NGOs could not provide us with
water, t-shirts and krama anymore. We needed to raise funds withing the
community”, Vanny explains. She also looked down saying that the ones in
charge of this are now the ones going on TV to criticize her.

Vanny is an indomitable woman. She filed complaints to every place she
could at least 20 times. “I have a house and a land title. But it’s
unfair that my neighbors don’t”. This is how she became the figure of
injustice in Cambodia and how the opposition asked her to become a CNRP
representative. “I refused because I want to live with people and stay
in my community. I am not interested by high positions or politics. I
just want to show that even if you are a poor, uneducated woman, you can
do something”. Looking at the giant poster of Amnesty International
displaying her friend Bopha, she feels sad. Bopha took over the fight
when Vanny was thrown to jail; she was screaming in the loudspeakers now
carefully lined up on the shelves, she was fighting against the police
to ask for Vanny’s freedom. But now she is in jail despite the requests
of the Boeung Kak community. The poster mentions “prisoner of
conscience”. Bopha is crying, holding her son in her arms. The
community of Boeung Kak is now taking care of him. “We need change. But
we have no choice for the change because there is only one party we can
vote for to get it”.

On election day, Vanny was not only voting; she was observing the
electoral process at the Wat Phnom primary school, recording
irregularities, frauds and problems. “If I ever meet Sam Rainsy, I will
tell him he should respect his promises if he becomes Prime Minister. We
need someone to work for the people and the country”, she confided with
a long hard look.

TEXT BY CLOTHILDE LE COZ