Tep Vanny: No fear in her body

‘Ladies of the Lake’, some media call them. It is a fairy-like name that conceals the hardship of women who are fighting for their homes along the Boeung Kak Lake. One of the ‘leading ladies’ is Tep Vanny: ‘If we don’t struggle today, we will die tomorrow.’

The Boeung Kak Lake in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh is no longer a lake; it is a sand-filled lot with bulldozers and cranes. About five years ago the construction started, chasing some three thousand families from their homes. Tep Vanny, a 31-year old woman with a strong mind and no fear, belongs to the seven hundred families who resist eviction. Even after five arrests, she keeps on organising demonstrations, giving press conferences, and exploring alternative development plans for the lake. ‘I feel no fear in my body,’ she says

Worldwide indignation

A major success in their negotiations with the government is that the remaining families are granted 12.44 hectare in the area, each family being entitled to a house of 4 x 16 meters. Tep Vanny: ‘This certainly is a victory, but the problems are not solved. About sixty families are excluded from the proposal, and three of us are still detained.’

On May 22, 2012, she and twelve others got arrested and sentenced to 2.5 years for illegal occupation of land and obstruction of public officers. The matter aroused worldwide indignation, as a peaceful demonstration of women had been brutally dispersed by the police. After a month, they were released, partly through the intervention of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. But the sentence was not remitted. ‘They told us: “If you continue protesting, we will jail you again”.’

Business closed down

Her life has been turned upside-down since the evictions began. Before that, her two young children went to school nearby. Her husband had a job in the military and ran a business making picture frames. Tep Vanny had an in-house shop for beauty products. ‘With the evictions of thousands of families, our customers vanished and we had to close down our businesses. Due to the protests, my husband has lost his job as a soldier. My children don’t want to go to school any more, afraid to lose sight of their mother. The government tries to end our jobs, our homes, our land.’

A women’s movement

The community movement consists mainly of women. Tep Vanny: ‘For two reasons: the men are out working and have no time, and secondly, a movement headed by women decreases the chance of violence. In Cambodian society, men are considered more dangerous than women, so the police attack and arrest them more easily. Whatever we do, our strategy is non-violent. We just want to be included in the development.’

Not alone

For Tep Vanny, the documentary Even a Bird Needs a Nest is essential to let the outside world know about their struggle. She is very excited about attending the Movies that Matter Festival in The Hague. ‘Now we know we are not alone. We have friends around the world who know about us.’

By Karolien Bais