On the morning of September 23, anti-eviction champion Tep Vanny was grappling with a legion of security guards blocking the entrance of the Daun Penh district offices while fellow protesters dismantled a razor-wire barricade nearby. The next day, she was on a plane to Washington to meet with representatives of the World Bank and U.S. State Department.
For 32-year-old Ms. Vanny, a wife and mother of two young children, fighting for justice has never been a choice.
“When I was about 8 or 9, I began to hate injustice, oppression and discrimination. I don’t like it when people try to intimidate me or anyone else,” Ms. Vanny said inside her home in Phnom Penh’s Boeng Kak neighborhood, where placards and props from past demonstrations serve as decoration.
Ms. Vanny has come a long way since she arrived in Phnom Penh from Kampot province in 1998, where she grew up in a poor family.
Today, she is a spirited presence at the often-violent protests against forced evictions in Phnom Penh since 2009 and has become the unofficial spokeswoman for both the Boeng Kak community and human rights causes in general.
She has been invited to speak in the U.S. three times, as well as in France, Brazil, the Netherlands, Singapore and Thailand. In March, she received the Vital Voices Global Leadership Award in a ceremony presided over by former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
During her most recent trip to Washington from September 24 to October 4, Ms. Vanny spoke at events hosted by the World Bank Inspection Panel, the U.S. State Department, the National Democratic Institute, Human Rights Watch and Freedom House.
“We want them to intervene, to ask the government to end the violence in Cambodia,” Ms. Vanny said, adding that while no promises were made by representatives of these bodies, her message was well received.
In December 2010, the World Bank froze new loans to Cambodia after the Inspection Panel—an independent body intended to serve those adversely affected by the bank’s policies—found that the government’s World Bank-funded issuance of land titles had deprived Boeng Kak residents of their property rights.
In 2007, the Phnom Penh mnicipality granted a 99-year lease of Boeng Kak to Shukaku Inc., a private firm owned by CPP Senator Lao Meng Khin. City Hall has since overseen the eviction of roughly 3,000 families.
Ms. Vanny said Monday that her dual roles as a grassroots protester in Cambodia and symbol of courageous activism abroad are equally important in bringing about positive change.
“In Cambodia, we are the victims ourselves; we fight against illegal evictions even though the government…considers us their enemy. They try to hurt and dishearten us,” she said.
“But abroad, I am representing the Cambodian people: I want people to know who we are, to pay attention to us, to care about us and be proud of us,” she added.
U.S. Embassy spokesman Sean McIntosh on Monday declined to comment on Ms. Vanny’s efforts to garner U.S. support for human-rights causes, but said in an email: “We [the U.S. Embassy] have raised and will continue to raise human rights concerns at the highest levels of the Cambodian government.”
Following a vicious attack by police and masked men on Boeng Kak protesters conducting a peaceful hunger strike at Wat Phnom on September 22, Ms. Vanny and her band of protesting neighbors, clad in white, prayed to some 100 monks Monday morning for protection from future violence.
What’s next on her busy agenda?
She flies to Dublin with independent radio station owner Mam Sonando to represent Cambodia at the annual meeting of the Irish rights forum Front Line Defenders on Wednesday.
“We will never give up hope,” Ms. Vanny said Monday. “We know that we will be beaten, arrested, charged and even killed, but we will find a way to fight for our rights and we hope we will receive justice one day.”