Amid one of the biggest mass evictions since the Khmer Rouge—3,000 families violently expelled from Phnom Penh’s Boeng Kak neighborhood in 2008—protracted protests turned shop owners and housewives into full-time activists.
Tep Vanny, then a stay-at-home mother, resisted. She met baton-wielding officers in riot gear head-on and led chants at the community’s demonstrations.
Tep Vanny in 2011. (Chhorn Chansy/The Cambodia Daily)Eight years later, as one of the country’s most prominent activists, Ms. Vanny is languishing in prison over old, resurrected charges that many believe the courts have pursued at the ruling party’s bidding.
Today, she is expecting an Appeal Court decision on her imprisonment.
Her family, supporters and local and international rights groups say they have little faith in the court delivering a fair verdict. But they continue to protest her imprisonment, drawing attention to a figure increasingly at the center of grassroots government opposition.
“It’s because of her activism and her work to protect the vulnerable people…that’s why a lot of people recognize her activism,” said Eang Vuthy, executive director of housing rights group Equitable Cambodia.
Ms. Vanny, 36, moved to Phnom Penh in 1998 from Kandal province, where she grew up in a poor family and came to hate what she described in previous interviews as oppression and discrimination. She and her now former husband, Ou Kong Chea, made a home in the Boeng Kak neighborhood, where Ms. Vanny was a housewife before her rise in activism.
In 2007, the Phnom Penh municipality granted a 99-year lease for Boeng Kak to Shukaku, a private company owned by CPP Senator Lao Meng Khin. Nearly two years later, more than 3,000 families were forcefully evicted from their homes.
Like millions of others across the country, the families lacked legal titles, though a 2002 land law should have entitled them to legal ownership because they had been there prior to the end of a government grace period, according to Mr. Vuthy. Those close to her say Ms. Vanny was adamant about fighting the injustice she believed her community faced. She was articulate. She could explain eloquently in both Khmer and English why she thought her community rightfully owned the land from which they were being expelled.
At protests, Ms. Vanny repeatedly chanted into a loudspeaker, her community echoing her words. She spoke to the media, and confronted officials in the fray of violent clashes. She was beaten and frequently arrested, as were many of her fellow Boeng Kak community members.
Boeng Kak lake was eventually paved over, but Ms. Vanny, fully committed to her search for justice, did not stop. She began to say that if she did not sacrifice her own life to find justice, she would be sacrificing the lives of her children by default. Her face became a familiar one at demonstrations across the country.

Tep Vanny, a prominent grassroots rights activist from the eviction-hit Boeng Kak community, participates in a demonstration in March 2011. (Chhorn Chansy/The Cambodia Daily)“She helped everyone: villagers who faced land issues, at Kem Ley’s funeral, in human rights issues. She never cared who it was,” said her 68-year-old mother Sy Hieb, referring to murdered political analyst Kem Ley. “She’s the strongest woman in the country.”
Ms. Vanny traveled continents to push for human rights. In April 2013, she received a global award for activism in a ceremony overseen by then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
“Her vision and innovative spirit set her apart as a global role model, and we believe the significance of her work will be felt for generations to come,” Katherine O’Hearn, chief development and communications officer for Vital Voices, the global NGO that hands out the award, said in an email last week.
Her activism appeared to take a toll on her personal life. It eventually drove a wedge between her and her husband, leading to their divorce. But she continued her crusade.
A year ago, Ms. Vanny was put behind bars for leading a demonstration seeking the release of five human rights defenders dubbed the Adhoc 5. Years-old charges were then piled against her, and today she is expected to hear the Appeal Court’s decision over a 30-month sentence for participating in a protest that turned violent in front of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s mansion in March 2013.
Daun Penh district security guards claim Ms. Vanny attacked them during the demonstration, but she says they were the violent ones.
Since being imprisoned, she has suffered chronic stomach pains and diarrhea, according to community members. Her two children, a son and a daughter, have only been able to embrace her as she has been escorted between court hearings and prison vans. If the judiciary leans in her favor today, Ms. Vanny could be immediately freed. But no one sees this as a likely outcome.
Boeng Kak activist Tep Vanny arrives at the Supreme Court to appeal her provisional detention in Phnom Penh in January. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)“I don’t expect the court will release her,” Boeng Kak activist Bo Chhorvy said. “Our court system is a remote control that follows as it is ordered…. If Samdech Hun Sen doesn’t order it, there is nobody at court to release her.”
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said Ms. Vanny serves as a warning to others.