Yorm Bopha

by Daniel Mattes, ’12

Daniel has been working since September 2012 as a monitor of the international tribunal for crimes committed under the Khmer Rouge, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

I had no work at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal yesterday and I decided to join my friend who works for ADHOC — one of the largest and most active domestic human rights NGOs in the country — at the Cambodian Supreme Court for the bail hearing of a land rights activist and political prisoner named Yorm Bopha. She is a member of the activist Boeung Kak community. Boeung Kak was a beautiful lake within the city of Phnom Penh that was filled in with sand after the land was sold to Shukaku Inc., a Cambodian-Chinese corp owned by a ruling party senator in 2007. It is now a desert, and no construction has taken place because the owners are waiting for the land values to rise before ‘developing’ it. The people who had lived on the lake and fished it for their business and sustenance began an immediate movement for reparation, but they were later evicted from the edge of the lake. This has evolved into a very active and rather well-known activist movement led mostly by women. Most recently, in Spring 2012, 13 Boeung Kak women were violently arrested. One of these women, Tep Vanny, is going to Washington DC to receive a human rights defender award from Hillary Clinton on 5 April from the Vital Voices Foundation — founded by Clinton when she was still First Lady — so they have received a good amount of international attention. Tep Vanny is also traveling in Europe now to promote this documentary, the trailer of which I suggest you watch if you want more information on Boeung Kak.

However, the case of Yorm Bopha remains. A 29-year old mother of one, Yorm Bopha was arrested in September 2012 and convicted in December 2012 on charges of “intentional violence” in the beating and axe attack of two moto-taxi drivers. Although no evidence was provided at her initial trial other than the two drivers’ testimony stating that she ordered it but did not attack them, she was sentenced to prison for three years. She is awaiting a hearing from the Appeals Court, which is taking its time to schedule one, but she had her second bail hearing before the Supreme Court yesterday. I arrived and saw the community of women (approximately 100 in all) gathering out front, prepared to sit in the scorching heat (it’s been about 40 degrees Celsius lately), meditate, and hold vigil while they awaited the results. Within the small courtroom in the back building of the Supreme Court complex, I sat with about eight other foreigners (mostly human rights monitors or journalists) and maybe ten Cambodian interpreters, monitors, and journalists. In the front row was Bopha, a strikingly beautiful, young woman I never had seen before yet who immediately shot me a smile upon taking notice of me. There were five hearings to be held that morning and Bopha’s was first. The prosecutor argued that Bopha would be a risk for flight or further violence if freed on bail. He also called her’s a “special case,” yet when her lawyer asked what “special” meant exactly, a judge interrupted to allow him to evade the question. Just last week, Hun Sen — the prime minister of the country since the 1980s — stated in a random speech that “the Boeung Kak lady” was on trial for her act of violence, reminding the court system of who’s really in charge and what is expected out of the trial. Nonetheless, Bopha was very hopeful that she’d be released by the Court as she had a husband and eight-year old son to take care of and she claimed her heart condition needs proper care. She promised to provide bail money and attend whenever called.

We then waited outside as the other four cases were discussed, and Bopha was able to sit with us and provide an impromptu press conference. She also got to see her son in a really touching moment. Throughout this time, she continued to smile and make very long eye contact with everyone (about 20-30 people), even with me — an anonymous white person. From the little I could understand in her comments to the Cambodian reporters, she continually repeated, “tawakaa ot sruool ay buntae…” (the work is not easy but…), “teangknia” (together) and, as I read in the newspaper today, she stated, “I think that if the court is independent, I will be released on bail…I hope to get justice and I will not surrender — I’m going to struggle until I get it.” In this peaceful time interacting with her, I really began to hope and believe she would be freed, albeit temporarily until her Appeal’s result. Even the two female guards sitting with her the whole time were chatty, laughing, and smiling with reporters and with Bopha. All the while, one Boeung Kak lady stood across the parking lot at the gate to the complex, quietly praying. We filed back into the courtroom when prompted and waited for about thirty minutes for the judges to deliberate. They returned and started first with Bopha’s judgment. I can still feel the sudden change of sentiment in the room as he first dispensed with the procedural niceties and slowly revealed the decision. My friend’s translator quickly interpreted in pieces: “the Municipal Court already made decision in this…not evidence of health condition…agree with Municipal Court…returned.”

Before she could finish the English translation, the one Boeung Kak activist in the courtroom who was sitting next to Bopha immediately let out a wail and began sobbing and screaming and grabbing onto Bopha. There was the briefest moment where no one moved or said anything, then it was as if it clicked with everyone. The reporters closest to the door ran out the door, the two female guards who had previously been laughing and smiling picked up Bopha with her friend grabbing on and still wailing, shouting “Tulaakaaa, hat euy?” (Court, why?). The entourage of reporters and monitors and guards slowly moved her down the steps to the parking lot outside where a van waited to take her back to Prey Sar Prison. You could see across the lot as the few Boeung Kak women separate from the main group in front of the building watched for any sign of the judgment. Upon realizing Bopha was being led to the van, they immediately began to scream as they ran through the gate, at least ten of them before the gate could be shut by guards. They blocked the van and hit it as the few guards struggled to get Bopha past the crowd of reporters and inside. While all of her supporters were crying and screaming, Bopha — with a face of shock and disappointment at times, but at most times resolute — held her fist in the air and shouted, “Struggle, struggle.” The media reports today translate her comments while being led out as: “This is my message to our community: Don’t give up or think that I can’t be freed. We must keep going in our struggle for our land rights…Struggle, struggle — justice will happen.” The van drove off with her sternly repeating her words and pumping her fist, and the moment it left, one woman fell to the floor writhing in agony really, bringing tears to my and most onlookers’ eyes. I found out later it was her mother. Even now, I think this and the image of the one friend in the courtroom holding onto her for dear life are going to stick with me and hurt me for a long time. Additionally, there was nothing to feel but pity for those two female guards who had to put her into the van, one getting in with her and one walking off after it left.

Yorm Bopha defiant as she is placed in van and returned to Prey sar Prison - Phnom Penh, Cambodia, 27 March 2013

Yorm Bopha defiant as she is placed in van and returned to Prey sar Prison – Phnom Penh, Cambodia, 27 March 2013

After tearing our eyes from Bopha’s mother still writhing on the concrete, we walked out to the street, and the once peaceful crowd of supporters was now sobbing, shouting, and pushing guards. They quickly tore a black styrofoam replica of the scales of justice that they had brought with them to pieces and set it aflame in the intersection in front of the Court. They added their trash and other plastics, burning a noxious black smoke into the air. The women pushed on the now closed gates of the Court, hitting it with sticks and the lotus flowers that they had previously used to pray with. One woman took the wooden pole of her Cambodian flag to jam it into the gate. At least two women fainted as they forgot to breathe, shouting and sobbing so violently. These women were a range of ages. There were teenaged girls, young wives and mothers, and elderly grandmas alike. All torn apart by the decision. In the middle of this desperate scene, her son wandered, looking on like so many other Cambodian and foreign journalists and monitors as well as the occasional tourist. The women decided to march to the Royal Palace gate just up the road to petition King Norodom Sihamoni to involve himself, an act of clear desperation as this king is decidedly apolitical and, subverted by Hun Sen, would never react to such an appeal. Nevertheless, they sat and chanted and cried and prayed, shouting their appeal down the main driveway into the gardens of the Palace where their voices went unanswered. After half an hour there, it was about 12:30PM, and a lady with just one eye passed out lunch — some rice with chicken and ginger — and they insisted on giving it to the few monitors or photographers who remained watching. Water as well. One girl was sent back home or maybe to a local clinic as she had fainted beyond immediate recovery in the hot sun. It was a taxing day on all, but these women did not stop. I heard that they were later asked to leave the palace entrance, but they will not stop.

It was really a difficult day, depressing in the most heartbreaking way. That said, I keep reminding myself of Yorm Bopha and what she herself was saying even as she was carried to the van to go back to Prey Sar Prison, she was raising her fists and telling her supporters, and which I’ll repeat again: “This is my message to our community: Don’t give up or think that I can’t be freed. We must keep going in our struggle for our land rights,” she said, raising her hand before being forced into the awaiting van. “Struggle, struggle – justice will happen.”  

If anyone has any ideas on how to make something out of this in the USA or anywhere, send them my way or take action yourself. If you want more information on her situation or want to help, visit here and here.

Much love. That struggle is a long one, but I believe Bopha.

Daniel Mattes has been living and working in Phnom Penh, Cambodia since graduating from Stanford University last June
Follow him on twitter and/or tumblr.

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