Fashion Statement: Boeng Kak Activists Go Radical Chic

In defiance of a ban on public assembly put in place this month by the Interior Ministry, a small group of political activists gathered in front of the U.S. Embassy on Tuesday to begin a march in Phnom Penh against the imprisonment of 23 protesters during mass garment worker strikes on January 2 and 3. 

Daun Penh district security guards, wearing full-faced black helmets, violently detained 11 of the marchers—including prominent land rights activists Tep Vanny and Yorm Bopha, and union leader Rong Chhun—and spirited them away to the Phnom Penh Municipal Police Headquarters where they were held for hours on the grounds of their need for “re-education.”

In the almost four hours that they were detained at the station, one of the activists, Song Sreyleap, who still had her smartphone, posted regular updates to her Facebook profile and in the process opened up a new photographic chapter in the women’s brand of iconoclastic dissidence.

“This time was so different from times before when they locked us up,” said Ms. Vanny during an interview at her homeon Wednesday.

“This time they let us roam around freely and keep our phones.”

Around 9:30 a.m., district security guards, who have no legal right to make arrests, stormed the small protest outside the U.S. Embassy and seize Ms. Vanny by the neck as she was delivering an explosive diatribe against the CPP government’s violations of people rights. The guards, who had Ms. Vanny in a brutal chokehold, forced her into a white van, which then sped away.

After Ms. Vanny’s arrest, the guards—working with city police—repeated their brutal abductions, seizing prominent union leader Rong Chhun. Later, on Monivong Boulevard they grabbed fellow land rights activist Yorm Bopha and nine others.

“The government are very, very frightened of the people,” Ms. Bopha said in an interview after he release. “That’s why they have been locking us up: The people rise up, the government tries to suppress it, we rise up more, then they freak out.”

Hours after her arrest, Ms. Vanny stood inside a room at the municipal police headquarters, proudly sporting her trademark blue krama and posing with police riot gear for smartphone “selfies.”

She said that the series of photographs posted to Facebook was the realization of a long-held wish of the anti-eviction activists, who usually have their phones confiscated when police detains them.

“The first time they arrested us, we saw their clothes and we wanted to wear them. We put them on, but they had confiscated our phones already that time,” Ms. Vanny said. “So we made a pact to wear them again one day and take photos of it, knowing well that we would be arrested again.”

“When we wear these clothes of the authorities, we feel incredibly happy and comfortable,” Ms. Vanny explained. “We want to show the police that you can wear these clothes but protect people and remain peaceful.”

Ms. Bopha echoed Ms. Vanny’s sentiment.

“When we were put in the room, we saw this huge pile of their clothes. I started to think—these are the clothes they use to beat us. These clothes should be used to protect the nation and the people, but unfortunately they like to use them to beat the people instead,” she explained.

A policeman checked on the detainees on as Ms. Bopha tried on the riot police’s forearm guards. After more than a year in prison, Ms. Bopha was released in November pending the re-investigation of spurious charges that she incited an attack on a group of motorcycle-taxi drivers.

“When I wear the authorities’ clothes, it shows that we still have a strong stance and we maintain a strong position, with our heads up high,” Ms. Bopha said. “I’ve never done anything wrong, but they’ve tried to silence me…and they’ve tried to break my community into pieces.”

“When people try to rise up, the government tries to stifle them like stifling the growth of young rice shoots. But we don’t worry about being arrested or handcuffed, we only worry about the people’s living conditions.”

Ms. Bopha said the series of photographs posted to Facebook was as much a message to the police as it was an act of whimsical defiance.

“We wore their shirts, but we did not beat anyone or put anyone in jail,” Ms. Bopha explained.

Ms. Vanny said she still held out hope for a kinder police force, despite her years of being beaten, harassed and jailed by the forces.

“If the police were to put on these uniforms and protect us, we would love them,” Ms. Vanny said smiling.

In full riot gear, Phan Chunreth, another land rights activist, clasped a riot shield as Mr. Chhun looked on.

In a vicious late-night attack on a peaceful vigil in September, Ms. Chunreth was kicked and shocked by police and plain-clothed men armed with electric cattle prods.

Ms. Vanny, who managed to flee the attack despite being its apparent target, said that years of protesting had left her with a sharp sense of the trajectory of a protest and of the likely reaction of authorities.

“Most of the time, I know what will happen,” she said, explaining that liberal use of social media let her turn her danger sense into a defense.

“Facebook is so important to us because when journalist are late to the scene, we can still get the news out. It is a special way of protecting our rights—we distribute the news and then everyone comes,” she said.

Ms. Vanny sat at the head table of the police room in which the women and Mr. Chhun were detained. In spite her present prominence, Ms. Vanny said she was not always so confident.

For many years, Ms. Vanny said, she had simply turned out to quietly watch others lead the charge against the decision in 2007 to hand over the land of her Boeng Kak community to a company owned by the wife of a CPP senator

“When I started, I knew very little. I went with them, I listened. I listened to the NGOs…. Then slowly I learnt that the taking of our land was illegitimate…but I still did not know anything about rights. I was afraid of even journalists,” she said.

“In 2011, I witnessed the police beating of [Boeng Kak anti-eviction activist] Suong Sophoan. Though I hate violence, I’d never seen anything like it—I’d only heard of the horrors of Pol Pot,” she said. “This event gave me much more courage. After that, I told my family, ‘I will no longer run my business, I will sacrifice my life to demand my rights,’” she said.

“We never hold hope for a solution, but before I was like a frog in the well—I had no idea about rights or what was going on,” Ms. Vanny said.

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