Minority Activist Alters Tactics After Threat

banlung town, Ratanakkiri pro­vince – On the night of July 16 two men armed with an AK-47 ar­rived at the Bokeo district farm of Dam Chan­thy and asked for her, telling her brother they were hired to kill her and shooting one round be­tween his legs.

Luckily, she was away that evening.

The next day a police officer was shot and killed while attempting to ap­­prehend one of the suspected as­sas­sins, known as Ny, who es­caped that day but was subsequently killed in a gun battle with police Aug 4.

Highlanders Association Pres­i­dent Dam Chanthy is still afraid be­­cause the suspected assassin was gun­ned down before he could re­­veal who had hired him. And she be­lieves the assassination plot, which sent her into hiding for a short time, was related to her work ed­ucating the province’s ethnic minorities about their land rights.

“During my days in hi­d­ing…

some people were saying ‘the high­landers are all alone now, their work will disappear,’” 51-year-old Dam Chanthy, an ethnic Lao-Tam­puon, said last week.

“But in fact the work goes on.”

The Highlanders Association still holds meetings for planning and in­for­mation dissemination among mi­nority communities, but Dam Chan­thy concedes that she is too afraid to work in the same way she did before.

“I have started working again, but I work differently,” she said. “I used to go everywhere alone. Now I always travel in groups of at least three. I dare not go with my husband to our plantation anymore. I have only one life, and if I die, nobody will take care of my children.”

Dam Chanthy said that her or­ganization was also changing tact. “Before we had a direct policy of educating people about land rights and the dangers of land loss.”

“Now we do it a different way. We changed the strategy to focus on agricultural development,” she said, noting that the new approach improves livelihoods and anchors them to their land.

Advocacy work in Ratanakkiri pro­vince has become more trea­ch­erous not only for Dam Chan­thy, but for others, too, said Pen Bon­nar, provincial coordinator for local rights group Adhoc.

“When she went into hiding, it only encouraged her attackers and others to intimidate human rights workers here,” Pen Bonnar said.

Though it is good that Dam Chan­thy is back to work, changing the focus of the association’s work was lamentable, he added.

“What she is doing now de­stroys her reputation and wastes her hard work,” Pen Bonnar said. “Be­fore she was working on land rights; now she is just helping to develop agriculture.”

Non-Timber Forest Products Pro­ject Coordinator Gordon Pa­ter­son said that although the assassi­na­tion attempt was a real scare, the ensuing publicity may help pro­­tect Dam Chanthy.

“It’s kind of catapulted her a little bit into the limelight,” he said. “She’s had several invitations to re­gional events representing indigenous people and indigenous people’s issues, so that might be one solution for her to start advocating at national and higher levels be­cause…that kind of exposure provides some protection.”

This is not the first time that Dam Chanthy has changed the fo­cus of her work. In the 1980s she began working for the provincial Wo­men’s Association and rose to its presidency. She continued working on women’s issues until the mid-1990s. She then worked for the Non-Timber Forest Pro­ducts Project until she began the High­landers Association in 2000.

The association now has 10 staff as well as members and activists from more than 20 communities—made possible in part be­cause Dam Chanthy speaks 10 langua­ges and dialects.

Despite her critics, Dam Chan­thy said her goals, if not her tactics, remain the same.

“We want the people to run their own communities, to preserve the ecology, protect land rights and improve agriculture,” she said. “Our goal is to safeguard the land.”

 

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