Tep Vanny’s Home Away From Home for Protesters

Out-of-town groups who come to Phnom Penh to protest against alleged land grabbing and lobby the national government for help have a new place to spend their nights.

With the help of a local NGO and donations from the Cambodian diaspora, well-known anti-eviction activist Tep Vanny has started construction on a new building next to her Boeng Kak home where protesters can stay untroubled during their Phnom Penh sojourns.

“When the people come from the provinces, they can come here,” said Ms. Vanny, sitting next to the brick-and-mortar shell of the yet-unfinished building. “If they don’t have a place to stay, they can stay here.”

Ms. Vanny said the new building would also serve as a regular meeting space for her own band of Boeng Kak anti-eviction activists in addition to hosting protesters from the provinces. By using private land, she hopes that no authority will be able to force them out.

“Some monks in the city don’t let them stay because they’re concerned about the government,” she said. “So when I saw the communities had no place to stay, I stopped my shop and gave up some of my land.”

It’s a modest affair, a simple, narrow two-story building with a tarpaulin roof for now. Construction started in May thanks to about $3,500 in donations from Cambodian-Americans Ms. Vanny met during a trip to the U.S. in April and another $3,000 from the women’s rights NGO Strey Khmer. Ms. Vanny figures she will need another $10,000 or so to finish the job.

Once it is finished, she estimates that the place will be able to hold about 150 people at a time.

Even in its unfinished state, the building is already hosting its first guests: about 90 villagers from Kompong Chhnang province who accuse a private firm owned by the wife of Mines and Energy Minister Suy Sem of stealing their farms and have come to Phnom Penh to protest.

One of them, Oum Sophy, said she was grateful for the shelter, however modest. Her husband was one of three men from the group arrested by police while marching to Phnom Penh earlier this month.

“We are very happy that the community has provided us shelter because there were no other places that could let us stay because they are afraid of the local authorities,” she said. “Although it’s crowded, it’s good to stay with them because we can learn from them how to fight for land.”

Ms. Vanny and her fellow Boeng Kak activists have indeed become well-known for their protesting prowess. Having honed their skills fighting for their own land in Boeng Kak, they often show up at the protests of others to lend their boisterous support and have even started training sessions.

All their activism has not escaped the attention of the authorities.

In June, the city started building a new military police base only meters away from Ms. Vanny’s house. The city claims it chose the location because it was simply the best piece of available land in Daun Penh district. The activists are convinced the police want to intimidate them and keep a closer eye on their activities.

“Building the police office there is not to threaten them. We have to provide security and safety for the community,” City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche said again Monday.

As for the new building they were constructing for out-of-town protesters, he said they were free to go about their business.

“We have no intention to stop them,” he said. “But if they break the law, we will already have our authorities there.”

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