Diakonia - People change the world

Sambo’s struggle for land rights lives in her husband

Chhit Sambo was dedicated to the fight for villagers’ land rights and gained many good results. Now she has passed away, and her husband is committed to her legacy and to let the struggle continue to live.

11/29/2016 Publisher: Annette U Wallqvist

Vech Vy’s  eyes are reddened as he talks about the recent passing of his wife, Chhit Sambo. She died of a stroke at the age of 50. Sambo is deeply remembered not just in the heart of her loving husband, but also by hundreds of people who joined her struggle to obtain their legal rights to the land that they and their ancestors have lived on for so long.

Like many other land cases in Cambodia, Skun village - where Vech Vy and his wife lived - faced conflicts with powerful land grabbers during the Cambodian economic boom in late 2000s. The common pattern is that local land owners were either paid small sums or put in jail if they refused. Vy and his wife, together with many other activists, were jailed for several months in 2009.

“I could have died then, you know, when the military pointed the gun at us and tried to bring us to jail. Without my wife’s advice, I would have risked my life, trying to fight them”, says Vy. 

Villagers advocate for their rights

Since Vy was recruited to be a soldier for the Khmer Rouge at a very young age he can’t read nor write. He met his wife when he was ordered to go to the village to find food. Eventually he ran away with his wife to escape to a refugee camp in Thailand. They returned to live in their homeland again after the final reintegration was completed in 1997.

With legal and material support from several of Diakonia’ s partners, villagers continue to advocate for their rights. Phally Samrach, Programme Officer at Diakonia’ s partner organization CLEC, explained that after six years of struggle, the villagers finally received a positive response from the government in 2014. Today, Vy and his villagers’ lands are systematically registered by the Land Ministry, but the certificates have not yet been delivered to them.

According to Samrach, this positive result was mainly due to the advocacy work of Vy’s wife Sambo. “Sambo was a very strong leader. She had a very artistic way to speak to different people. She could easily engage thousands of villagers.  You can ask anyone about this. Secondly, she was very strategic in her advocacy and thinking. But most importantly, she was patient and persistent. I am very sorry for her passing.” says Samrach.      

She wrote petitions during the night

Thinking back to the time when the conflict began in 2008, Vy speaks, constantly shaking his head.  
“My wife went to elementary school for only three years. I remember that she was writing petitions during the night and going from door to door to collect thumb prints during day time while pretending to be collecting gooseberry leaves across the village to hide what she was doing from the eyes of the military. I used to drive her on the motorbike when she decided to go from place to place to seek help. I still have piles of her letters saved in my bags.  

After they were released from jail, Vy and Sambo led the villagers to raise funds to install a water pipe for village use all the way from the Kulen Mountain about five kilometres away. The water is now running all seasons in front of Vy’s house and available for public use.

Elected to be the sucessor of his wife

Following Sambo’s passing, Vy was recently elected by the people from three villages to be the successor of his wife as their representative. He now has to lead more than three hundred villagers to continue advocating for their land title and report human rights incidents to Diakonia’s partner organizations CLEC, LICADHO and ADHOC. 

Said Vy shakes his head and looks at his unfinished house that he and his wife was planning to build for themselves and their five children.

“I don’t know what else to do now without her. I just follow the decision of the villagers. They told me they are helpless without me. Before it was my wife. My wife only. Really, without her, we would not be able to stand on this soil.”

Story told to Sokunthea Peng, programme officer at Diakonia in Cambodia.