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Cambodia: Vanny Tep, former pinup model, rages against cronyism

In a country where dissent can bring death, one woman fights against the destruction of homes to make way for Chinese development projects.

Cambodia's government destroys the homes of poor residents to make way for upscale developments, often financed by rich Chinese investors. This excerpt from the Kindle Single "Playground" tells the story of one woman's bold struggle against the desctruction. 

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Puttering down traffic-congested streets here earlier this year in a tuk-tuk, the motorcycle-pulled taxis of Southeast Asia, Vanny Tep wouldn’t stop talking. It was mid-afternoon and she’d been up since 5:30 a.m., leading three-hour seminars on protest methodology, fielding calls from reporters and politicians on two separate phones — “one for business, one for family” — and yelling, always yelling. I was exhausted just from watching her all day, and trying not to get yelled at.

“Khmer help Khmer! Khmer help Khmer!” Vanny bellowed at me inside our tuk-tuk as motorbike repair shops, rice stalls, and claustrophobic alleys streaked past. “It’s the slogan of our protest, and if anyone wants to struggle with us, they must say it. They must believe it. Because in Cambodia, we have only destroyed and killed ourselves. The government only cares about the rich, the companies. The government doesn’t care about the poor people. We need to change that!”

“Khmer help Khmer?” I asked.

“Khmer help Khmer!” she shouted back.

In Cambodia, ruled by a strongman named Hun Sen who imprisons or kills dissenters, these were very unusual things to say. I’d never heard anything like it. Between 2009 and mid-2011, I lived in provincial Cambodia as a Peace Corps volunteer and writer, traveling to every backwater on assignment for magazines and newspapers or various development missions. I became fluent in the language, got to know hundreds of Cambodians, dozens of them intimately, and thought I had met every sort of Khmer personality the country had to offer. But then I met Vanny.

I’d often been told in low-lit coffeehouses, in quiet tones, about the Cambodian government and its connection to China and foreign investors. Hun Sen’s cronies and the national senators sell any land they can to them, I heard, and leave the people destitute. As months passed, the tales became more frequent, and I started noticing in some parts of Cambodia that Chinese characters adorn just about every new bridge or highway streaking through rice fields. This may have been Cambodia’s development — but China owned it.

More from GlobalPost: Cambodia evictions continue unchecked

From the slums of Phnom Penh to the southern shores and eastern hills, Cambodia is transforming from a nation of farmers into a country of skyscrapers, golf courses, and air-conditioned villas at the behest of foreign investors — a playground for the elite. Since 2000, nearly $22 billion from abroad has been pledged to this transition, nearly $9 billion from China, according to Cambodian government records. Korea is the next largest source at $3.8 billion. While the money flows, Cambodia’s “kleptocratic elite” — led by Prime Minister Hun Sen who’s had power for 26 years — siphon between $300 million and $500 million annually, according to USAID and local NGOs.

The incredible sums of money splashing across Cambodia underscores a new global order, one defined by an ascendant China and a diminished Western role as austerity strangles Europe and unemployment guts the United States. With $3.2 trillion in financial reserves, China’s already the world’s wealthiest nation, nearly tripling Japan’s reserves, which wields the second most. In Southeast Asia alone, China has plowed $14 billion into Myanmar and $3 billion more into Laos, a country of 6.5 million inhabitants so poor that sticky rice in some parts can constitute a meal. We can already guess who wins in this new paradigm. The same who won in the last one — the global 1 percent. But what does it mean for everyone else?

Over the last decade or so, amid China’s buying spree across Cambodia, more than 700,000 people here have lost their houses, and others their lives. Since December, as murmurs of revolution engulfed the affected communities, the Cambodian military has shot seven villagers in five separate evictions. Scores more have been beaten and thrown in prison. One woman in Phnom Penh, Chea Dara, in apparent anguish over her looming eviction, hurled herself from a bridge into the Mekong River last October and killed herself.

“This is how