We Are All Human Rights DefendersPublished on May 9, 2010
Sometimes the most effective defense of human rights begins with the simplest of questions.
"Why can't I be here?"
"What law did I break?"
And sometimes, just: "Why?"
The latter was a question that the Venerable Luon Sovath began asking early in life. The 32-year-old grew up in Cambodia's Siem Reap province and came of age in the midst of Cambodia's vicious civil war. He witnessed horrific violence as the Khmer Rouge attempted to regain control of the country.
Growing up, there was rarely a clear answer to the question "why?" The violence was usually senseless; the injustice seemed systematic. Only two things were certain: First, the war was tearing his family apart; each of his 11 siblings had become entangled in the conflict. And second, he did not want to join them.
So at age 15, Sovath took a different path: He became a monk. His choice allowed him to escape harm during Cambodia's decades-long war, and instilled the virtues of karma, reflection, and justice.
Today, Cambodia's guns are mostly silent, but another battle rages: The fight over land rights. Since 2004, over 250,000 Cambodians have been victims of illegal government land seizures to make way for commercial development, plantations, dams, and mining concessions.
The government provides its citizens no due process in these evictions, and the use of military police to enforce them is common. The people benefiting from land seizures are uniformly well-connected businessmen with the means to call on virtually every state mechanism for support: high-ranking government officials, courts, district and provincial officials, police and soldiers.
The ideology behind Cambodia's current battle never sat well with Sovath's Buddhist ideals. And ironically, the same vows that sheltered him from one conflict would ultimately plunge him into another.
The Chi Kreng Land Grab
On March 22, 2009, Sovath got a panicked phone call. There was trouble in his home village in Siem Reap's Chi Kreng district. The government had recently awarded all village farmland to a politically-connected company and they wanted to bulldoze the site. Nearly 100 military and police forces were moving in to enforce the order, accompanied by the Siem Reap prosecutor, the deputy provincial governor, and other high-ranking officials.
Some 80 unarmed villagers emerged to protest. Although they did not have titles to the land, they had lived there since the 1980s, which under Cambodia law entitled them to the right of ownership.
But the authorities weren't there to listen. Instead, they opened fire.
Three villagers were wounded, including Sovath's brother and nephew. Forty-three others were detained by police for questioning and forced to thumbprint documents forfeiting their land. Later that evening, 34 out of the 43 villagers were released, but nine villagers were detained and charged with robbery and physical assault. Two more were arrested at a later date. The charges stemmed from a complaint by two businessmen who claimed ownership of the land. The pair alleged that the land belonged to them now, and that the villagers had illegally harvested rice from the land - rice that the villagers had grown with their own hands.
The village's farmland was subsequently confiscated. The shooting investigation, meanwhile, was a whitewash. The government claimed that the shooters acted in self-defense.
Sovath arrived in time to film the aftermath, and to collect video from other villagers who had captured the shooting itself. But there was little else he could do. Or so it seemed.
A police officer came to question Sovath the next day. He was direct with his request: The police wanted his videos.
Sovath did not flinch. If one feature defines his activism, it is the almost childlike frankness with which he confronts authorities. The Asia Sentinel1 reported the following exchange:
"What law did I break?" He asked the officer.
The officer fell silent.
"If you want to borrow it you can," Sovath continued. "But if you want to take it you can't."
The officer left empty-handed, but more police visits followed. A second officer suggested that the military might storm his pagoda and seize the videos. On the third visit, after more threats, Sovath finally agreed to turn over the videos. But by then he had already distributed it to all of the major human-rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in Cambodia. The contents caused a sensation: The video clearly contradicted the government's claim that the police acted in self-defense2.
On April 2, 2009, facing increasing pressure from authorities, Sovath left his pagoda for Onaloum Pagoda in Phnom Penh. He brought 100 villagers with him. "My heart was too heavy to remain in Siem Reap. I came here to try to regain my peace of mind," he told Human Rights Watch last year3.
The authorities took swift notice. A week after moving the villagers to Phnom Penh, an official from the Ministry of Cults and Religion arrived at his pagoda. The government demanded that the villagers return to Siem Reap.
With their livelihoods shattered, the villagers were forced into survival mode. Authorities had arrested strategically, targeting breadwinners and activists. The goal was to break the villagers' will. Without no land to farm and no men to work, the families were destitute.
It was a potentially explosive situation: People stripped of all they own, with nothing to lose. Sovath wanted to channel their energy in another direction.
On October 20, 2009, the trial date for nine defendants, Sovath went with the villagers for a peaceful vigil outside the courtroom in Siem Reap. Security was heavy, with approximately 150 military police armed with guns, shields and electric batons. Their plan was to observe the trial, but the public and families of detainees were barred from entering court.
As the morning progressed, police began harassing the villagers, accusing them of disturbing the hearing. There were repeated demands to disburse. Sovath filmed the scene as it developed.
Finally, authorities decided to target the ring-leader. Siem Reap governor Sou Phearin called in the province's senior monk; he arrived at the courthouse at 11 a.m. He confronted Sovath and forced him into a waiting car with a government license plate. Sovath was taken to a nearby pagoda, where he was interrogated by a group of his superiors, who accused him of inciting the villagers to demonstrate. The monks threatened to disrobe Sovath, and demanded that he sign a letter promising to cease further incitement. Sovath refused.
"What law did I break?"
An hour later, he was released.
Commune police continued to monitor the activities of NGO staff and villagers following the trial. Sovath and the villagers, meanwhile, were making plans for further action: They wanted to be at court on October 27, 2009, to hear the verdict.
By now, his interest in the case was drawing even greater scrutiny from the authorities. The evening before the verdict, over 50 armed police surrounded the village and Sovath's adjacent pagoda. The made a show of loading their weapons. The message was clear: The villagers could not go to Siem Reap. They stayed overnight to enforce the order, three of them inside Sovath's house within the pagoda.
Then came more bad news: The trucks Sovath had hired for transported called to say they were threatened by police. They couldn't come. Sovath called a meeting with villagers and asked what should be done. They unanimously decided they would wake early and walk. It was almost 90 kilometers, a practically impossible task.
The next morning, Sovath woke at 4 a.m. He snuck quietly out of his pagoda, undetected by police, and slipped into the village. He went door-to-door, waking each family, until he had assembled a group of over 50 citizens - the elderly, the young, even pregnant women and children. They set out across the rice fields in the direction of the main road.
Two hours later, the police finally realized they had been duped. They set out on motorbike to locate Sovath. They found him 10 kilometers away, just short of the main road. A half dozen of them erected a makeshift roadblock with their bikes. They were about 50 meters ahead of the group.
Sovath responded by turning his video camera on them. The group kept marching.
"You are not allowed to go!" one officer yelled.
The group was now 20 meters from the police.
"Why?" Sovath said. "I have a right to go where I want."
Sovath now stood face to face with the angry officer. He reached out to confiscate Sovath's camera.
"Don't record us," the officer said.
"Recording is also my right," Sovath replied. "I am recording the road. If you don't want to be recorded, move away from the road."
As Sovath argued with police, the group managed to pass. One roadblock was cleared, but there would be many more obstacles.
From the roadside, Sovath called every taxi in Chi Kreng. They all refused to come. They too had been threatened by police.
The group kept walking. The police followed, setting up roadblocks every 100 to 200 meters. Hitchhiking wasn't working - all of the drivers had been warned. But finally a taxi stopped to pick up a portion of the group. It took all of 100 meters before the police flagged it down. The driver was detained and his keys confiscated. Sovath had to intervene in order to convince police that it was his fault, not the driver's. Ultimately, the entire taxi was forced to turn back in the other direction - back to where it came from.
The group kept walking, but its ranks began to thin. Sovath hailed several more taxis and trucks, but it was not until they had walked 20 kilometers that they began to have any luck. The villagers broke into smaller groups and took several trucks; some made it, some were turned back.
Sovath himself was finally picked up by NGO workers at about 10 a.m., after walking some 30 kilometers. He did not arrive at the courthouse until almost 11 a.m. By then the verdict was three hours old: Two villagers had been convicted on charges of assault and robbery, and sentenced to one year imprisonment and a US$750 fine.
Seven were acquitted, but they would remain in prison pending fresh charges and an appeal from the prosecutor. Such is the nature of the Cambodian justice system.
Sovath, meanwhile, received a call from a superior: He was ordered back to Phnom Penh immediately. Sovath said the request was impossible. He was too busy.
"You're going to be jailed," replied the senior monk.
The aftermath and current threat
The Chi Kreng land grab wasn't unique - over a quarter-million Cambodians have been similarly affected in the past five years. The difference was Sovath's courageous and creative response, as well as his standing as a monk.
At a time when Cambodia desperately needs a voice of justice and moral authority, the country's clergy have been conspicuously silent, often complicit. Sovath has acted at great risk to his personal safety. Critics of the Cambodian government's policy are regularly intimidated, arrested, imprisoned and sometimes killed.
The threat to Sovath is no different, despite his robes. In fact, he may face an even greater threat, given his willingness to speak out, appear in the media, and openly document abuses perpetrated by the authorities. Yet he feels a personal responsibility toward the victims of the current land crisis.
"When a monk intervenes," he says, "it carries weight."
Today, Sovath remains in Phnom Penh. He travels to Chi Kreng regularly - and at great risk to his personal safety - to continue his work there among the villagers and others. He has expanded his work to include visits with the local NGO LICADHO to other victims of land-grabbing. His free time is dedicated to producing videos documenting the human rights abuses he witnesses.
Sovath also makes regular visits to Cambodia's prisons with LICADHO, where he preaches to inmates the Buddhist virtues of patience, self-control, compassion, and of course, justice. Many of the people he speaks to are themselves victims of unlawful land-grabbing. His work is instrumental in furthering LICADHO's mission of reaching out to victims of human rights abuses.
He told Human Rights Watch that he laments the difficulties faced by landless villages throughout Cambodia: "Now when farmers raise their voices about loss of their land, they are threatened, jailed, or brought to court and sued."
"The rich have collaborated with the powerful to take the land."