In an earlier post, I shareda clip from a video advocacy training in Cambodia. The first practical training exercise took place in Siem Reap province, where one of the trainees, the Venerable Luon Sovath, grew up.
The Venerable has been using video, images and music to support the land rights of his village as well as other villages and communities across the country. He often shoots footage, does a quick edit on his laptop and then burns the footage onto a DVD to be distributed to local villages. Because of his leadership supporting villages resisting land-grabbing, the Venerable has been repeatedly threatened with arrest and disrobing.
We Are All Human Rights Defenders
Sometimes the most effective defense of human rights begins with the simplest of questions.
“Why can’t I be here?”
“What law did I break?”
And sometimes, just: “Why?”
The latter was a question that the Venerable Luon Sovath began asking early in life. The 32-year-old grew up in Cambodia’s Siem Reap province and came of age in the midst of Cambodia’s vicious civil war. He witnessed horrific violence as the Khmer Rouge attempted to regain control of the country.
Growing up, there was rarely a clear answer to the question “why?” The violence was usually senseless; the injustice seemed systematic. Only two things were certain: First, the war was tearing his family apart; each of his 11 siblings had become entangled in the conflict. And second, he did not want to join them.
So at age 15, Sovath took a different path: He became a monk. His choice allowed him to escape harm during Cambodia’s decades-long war, and instilled the virtues of karma, reflection, and justice.
Today, Cambodia’s guns are mostly silent, but another battle rages: The fight over land rights. Since 2004, over 250,000 Cambodians have been victims of illegal government land seizures to make way for commercial development, plantations, dams, and mining concessions.
The government provides its citizens no due process in these evictions, and the use of military police to enforce them is common. The people benefiting from land seizures are uniformly well-connected businessmen with the means to call on virtually every state mechanism for support: high-ranking government officials, courts, district and provincial officials, police and soldiers.
The ideology behind Cambodia’s current battle never sat well with Sovath’s Buddhist ideals. And ironically, the same vows that sheltered him from one conflict would ultimately plunge him into another.
The Chi Kreng Land Grab
On March 22, 2009, Sovath got a panicked phone call. There was trouble in his home village in Siem Reap’s Chi Kreng district. The government had recently awarded all village farmland to a politically-connected company and they wanted to bulldoze the site. Nearly 100 military and police forces were moving in to enforce the order, accompanied by the Siem Reap prosecutor, the deputy provincial governor, and other high-ranking officials.
Some 80 unarmed villagers emerged to protest. Although they did not have titles to the land, they had lived there since the 1980s, which under Cambodia law entitled them to the right of ownership.
But the authorities weren’t there to listen. Instead, they opened fire.
Three villagers were wounded, including Sovath’s brother and nephew. Forty-three others were detained by police for questioning and forced to thumbprint documents forfeiting their land. Later that evening, 34 out of the 43 villagers were released, but nine villagers were detained and charged with robbery and physical assault. Two more were arrested at a later date. The charges stemmed from a complaint by two businessmen who claimed ownership of the land. The pair alleged that the land belonged to them now, and that the villagers had illegally harvested rice from the land – rice that the villagers had grown with their own hands.
The village’s farmland was subsequently confiscated. The shooting investigation, meanwhile, was a whitewash. The government claimed that the shooters acted in self-defense.
Sovath arrived in time to film the aftermath, and to collect video from other villagers who had captured the shooting itself. But there was little else he could do. Or so it seemed…* To continue reading about the Venerable and the Chi Kreng land case, check out the full story.