Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO)
October 2, 2012 - Venerable Loun Sovath was awarded the 2012 Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders on Oct. 2, becoming the first Cambodian ever to win the prestigious honor.
The award, known colloquially as the “Nobel Prize for human rights”, was created in 1993 to honor and protect individuals who demonstrate exceptional courage in defending and promoting human rights. Sovath is the first Buddhist monk and first Southeast Asian to win the award. He was on hand to receive the award during a special ceremony in Geneva, Switzerland.
The winner of the award is determined by an international jury, composed of representatives from organizations including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the International Federation for Human Rights.
“We are deeply gratified that the Martin Ennals committee recognized the importance of Venerable Sovath’s efforts,” said LICADHO President Dr. Pung Chhiv Kek. “By selecting Venerable for this award, they are not only honoring his past work, they are elevating his international status, which provides protection for his future work. The ‘protective publicity’ aspect of the award is critical.”
Venerable Sovath is best known for his work supporting ordinary Cambodians who stand up for their land rights, and for his ability to blend the old and the new, mixing traditional Buddhist teachings with modern technology. His extensive use of video – he has filmed a number of his confrontations with authorities – has earned him the nickname the “multimedia monk.” He also utilizes songs and art to spread his non-violent message of standing up for human rights.
“He is the rare monk who is willing to use his standing as a religious authority figure to speak out against injustices in Cambodia,” Dr. Pung Chhiv Kek said. “And he is speaking out on the most pressing issue of our time: Land. This is very threatening to authorities, because most Cambodians are very religious people.”
Venerable Sovath first became involved in human rights work in 2009, when members of his family were injured during a violent eviction in Siem Reap province’s Chi Kreng district. During a standoff with authorities, police fired shots at the unarmed villagers, injuring Sovath’s brother and nephew. Some villagers videotaped the shooting, and Sovath himself filmed the aftermath.
Police claimed they fired shots in self-defense, but the videos showed otherwise. Local authorities attempted to intimidate Venerable Sovath into handing over the footage. But he didn’t budge. Instead, he sent it to major human-rights NGOs in Cambodia. The contents caused a sensation: The video clearly contradicted the government's claim that the police acted in self-defense.
The power of video in Cambodia’s fight for human rights was clear.
Since then, Venerable Sovath has crisscrossed the country from one land conflict to the next, documenting each step of the way. It has not been difficult to find hotspots: LICADHO research shows that some 2.1 million hectares of land has been given to private companies in the form of land concessions since 1993. The massive transfer has led to countless forced evictions and affected over 400,000 people in the 12 provinces that LICADHO monitors since 2003 alone.
The journey has not been easy, however. Venerable Sovath has been threatened, detained and harassed by authorities repeatedly along the way. He has been banned from pagodas in and around Phnom Penh. His teachings have been denounced by the nation’s top religious authorities. He has received threatening phone calls, including death threats. And recently in May, he was forcibly dragged into a waiting vehicle after he showed up outside the Phnom Penh municipal court to observe the trial of the Boeung Kak Lake 13 (the incident was documented by LICADHO here: http://www.licadho-cambodia.org/video.php?perm=32). Authorities threatened to defrock and criminally charge him unless he ceased his human rights activities. He refused.
Venerable Sovath is currently supporting two Phnom Penh communities involved in long-running land disputes: Borei Keila and Boeung Kak Lake. Last months, two activists – one from each of these communities – were arrested and detained on spurious charges within one day of each other. Their trial dates have yet to be set.
Venerable Sovath’s previous awards include recognition from the United Nations’ Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and, a Hellman/Hammett Award from Human Rights Watch in 2011, and the WITNESS “See It. Film It. Change It.” Award in 2010, which was shared with LICADHO.
For more background on Venerable Loun Sovath, please see the following LICADHO links:
For more information, please contact:
• Dr. Pung Chhiv Kek, 012 802 506
• Ms. Naly Pilorge, 012 803 650