Diakonia - People change the world
Tep Vanny never thought that she would become politically active, but through Diakonia's partner organization Equitable Cambodia, she now knows her rights. And she refuses to be silent. Photo: Stephen Welch

Tep Vanny – standing up for land rights in Cambodia

Tep Vanny is a passionate change maker who is working courageously alongside others so that people living in poverty can gain power over their own lives.

11/5/2013 Publisher: Magdalena Ackeberg

Prepared to sacrifice her life

Tep Vanny in Cambodia is one of several women who for the first time has become involved in political issues in Cambodia and forced the government to return land.

"I am ready to give my life if that means getting our land back," says Tep Vanny.

Told she was insane

Tep Vanny knows what struggle involves. For several years, she and the other "women by the lake" have being locking horns with a corrupt power and companies uninterested in anything except making money. They have stood right at the front by the riot barrier and haven't backed down, despite the high price they have been forced to pay. One pregnant woman lost the baby she was carrying after a demonstration in which the police kicked her in the stomach, 14 women were imprisoned for over a month, and all of them have experienced harassment and been called insane. Tep Vanny's husband has been suspended from his job, she has personally lost 15 kilos in weight, and since she served a prison sentence, her seven-year-old son has been following her around like a shadow – terrified that she will disappear again.

"Every day, we continue to fight for our survival and for a decent life. This is our home – we haven't stolen it from anyone. Success isn't something you’re born with – it’s something we’re fighting to achieve."

Development only benefiting the rich

We are sitting around the table in the yard behind her house. The house that she and her husband were given as a wedding present by her parents-in-law; the house they almost lost when the government rented out the land on which it was built to a company with foreign interests and then filled the nearby lake with sand to enable the construction of exclusive offices and shops for the Cambodian elite. The government calls it development, but Vanny says that it's development that only benefits people with power.

"When I was little, I always went to bed if someone was fighting. I couldn't stand the unfairness – I always wanted to help those who were powerless," she says.

Educated in her rights

When the families around Boeung Kak Lake were faced with the threat of being relocated (to a place a long way out of town, without any means of making a living), Tep Vanny and a number of other women took to the streets and demonstrated. With support from Diakonia's partner organization, Equitable Cambodia, they were educated in their rights, in how these can be defended and in how to organize themselves in order to become stronger and put pressure on companies and international aid donors.

"I had never thought about becoming a political leader. Women in Cambodia have never protested before – just like me, they had stayed at home, cooked food, looked after the children and taken care of the home. But now, several women have plucked up the courage to join the struggle," says Vanny.

Women have made a difference

And their protests have not fallen on deaf ears. The World Bank – one of the financiers of a project to survey land rights in the country – stopped its payments to the Cambodian government. And when the World Bank stopped its payments, the government was forced to listen – just one month later, over 630 families had been given land rights in the area. But there are still families who have received neither land rights nor reasonable compensation. This is why Tep Vanny is not satisfied and why the women by the lake continue their protests.

"I no longer have any physical strength – what I still do have, though, is my mental strength. But if we don't want history to repeat itself, we need to get involved. I want my children to have a better future, a bright future," says Tep Vanny.