OP-ED: Cambodia must drop phony charges against women land rights activists

Cambodia National Rescue Party member and MP Mu Sochua. Photo Credit: Lauren Crothers

By Mu Sochua, Cambodian opposition MP

Monday’ sentencing of four women land rights activists by a Phnom Penh Court does not bode well for the Cambodian government, which is already being closely eyed by the international community for its ongoing politically motivated crackdowns against critics and political opponents.

Tep Vanny, a woman who has gained global recognition for her ongoing fight against the government’s land grabbing, is one of the four women activists convicted on trumped-up charges earlier this week. She is recognized inside and outside of Cambodia as one of the leaders of the Beung Kak Lake movement against the government’s property confiscation scheme there, which saw the land given to a ruling party senator in 2007.

In their struggle to preserve their community and their own properties, the Beung Kak lake families, led mainly by women, have suffered tremendous physical, verbal, psychological and emotional violations and abuses committed by the state security forces. Those include hiring thugs – or what the government calls security guards – who have no limits to the use of physical force.

The government’s economic land concession policy has affected nearly 1 million people in the urban and rural areas. Forced evictions and legal action against the victims have led to family separation, divorces, domestic violence and children dropping out of school.

As signatory to the UN Convention of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), Cambodia has committed itself to take all measures to protect and promote the full development and advancement of women. Such state measures should be a guarantee for women to enjoy their human rights and fundamental freedoms.

The government of Cambodia has utterly failed the women of Cambodia by using the judiciary to eliminate the voices of female land rights activists and human rights defenders. Women have been at the forefront at each single street protest. Women have learned to organize and have stood firmly and with great dignity against systematic forced evictions, land grabs and widespread deforestation, which is often related to corruption and the impunity of state officials.

When development policies force families off their lands and out of their homes, women have no other choice but to organize and to become fierce opponents of such state policies. Putting them behind bars on trumped up charges only reflects the government’s blatant lack of commitment to long-term sustainable development goals.

Thirty-nine countries and members of the UN Human Rights Council have recently issued a joint statement expressing concerns over the current escalation of political tensions in Cambodia.

The world is watching: The release of Tep Vanny should be unconditional and immediate, and all charges against other land activists should be dropped.

Mu Sochua is a member of Cambodia’s parliament and member of the Cambodia National Rescue Party. She is a former Minister for Women’s Affairs.

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