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

The Cambodian army destroyed a Phnom Penh slum, Borei Keila, earlier this year. That night, villagers light giant infernos that burned into the night.</p>

The Cambodian army destroyed a Phnom Penh slum, Borei Keila, earlier this year. That night, villagers light giant infernos that burned into the night.

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.

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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 it is in Cambodia,” a farmer in central Cambodia told me years ago. “You can’t change that.”

But Vanny thinks she can, and her ambitions, her personality, represent something unique: a new woman in Cambodia. A deeply patriarchal country, women are expected to quietly tend the house and children while men smoke and drink with buddies. Vanny, garrulous and bombastic, has two children — a boy, 7, and a girl, 9 — but seldom watches them. They stay with grandparents. She hardly ever cleans. Rarely cooks. Too busy, she says, and for good reason. At 31, she has become the de facto leader of a capital-based grassroots movement against the government, violent land eviction, and development itself. Earlier this week, she staged another protest outside Cambodia’s National Assembly. More than a dozen women stripped down to panties and bras; others in the demonstration chained themselves together to decry the eviction.

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Vanny’s scheduled to address United Nations delegates in Hong Kong in June, has studied protest methodology in Bangkok, leads biweekly seminars on non-violent civil disobedience that draw listeners from all over the country, and has gotten arrested four times. Once a pinup model, her appearance today reflects the ethos of a utilitarian. She only wears blue jeans and plaid shirts, her hair pulled back in a ponytail. Her life, she says, has no space for vanity. “Ah, I used to be beautiful!” she told me, a nostalgic grin sneaking across her face.

Along a dirt road strewn with plastic bags and tin cans, our tuk-tuk finally lurched to a stop. “We’ve arrived already,” Vanny said, stepping from the taxi. Once a somnolent fishing village, this warren of shacks looked like something out of a post-apocalyptic film, barren and cragged. Before Vanny’s house, 330 acres of sand stretched in every direction — a desert in the heart of the tropical metropolis. Half-completed skyscrapers and Hun Sen’s offices loomed over the dunes.

Only a few years ago, this had been a lake teeming with freshwater fish and grunting water buffalo. A daunting labyrinth of hand-built, musty dwellings and 20,000 inhabitants had squeezed around the waters. For generations, many had eked by with fishing poles and line. But in 2007, a Chinese-backed company, Shukaku Incorporated, leased the slum with grand plans: Fill in the lake with the muck of the nearby Mekong River and erect shopping malls, skyscrapers, and high-end apartments — a “satellite city.” Since, while becoming Cambodia’s most contested eviction since Pol Pot, two-thirds of Boeung Kak’s residents have fled under intimidation and violence.

I’d heard of this place for years. Even in my faraway village, newspapers had run stories about the battles here between residents and government troops and Shukaku. Soldiers had tasered and sent to prison dozens of villagers — including two children — with their heads bashed. Police split one man’s head open last September with a brick. A woman cradled his mangled head, sobbing, “It happened again!” Then a bulldozer destroyed eight homes while its owners, eyes cold with resignation, looked away.

I followed Vanny into her house, long and narrow like a bowling alley. It overflowed with at least 20 women. They all stared at me. Vanny said, “This is Boeung Kak: the place of the great struggle.”

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They’re named the League of Boeung Kak Women. In 2010, Vanny had assembled this army of women to protest Shukaku. Recognizing that the Khmer military and police overwhelmingly crackdown on male demonstrators, she galvanized a female resistance against development. “We can do more than take our husband’s clothes, wash them, and hang them,” Vanny recalls telling Boeung Kak’s women. “Are we strong? This is a woman’s struggle.”

What Vanny advocated then wasn’t just a new protest strategy, it was a new, matriarchal order. There’s a saying in Cambodia. “Men are gold and women are cloth.” Males can always shine themselves new while women — no matter their behavior — are stained forever. This sentiment dictates virtually every social interaction: how teenagers flirt, who’s hired for a job, or which child goes to university while another stays home drying fish and ginger. Vanny wanted to alter a defining tenet of Khmer culture.

She got it. The women Vanny brought into the movement were, like her, far from traditional. They were defiant, argumentative, and effervescent. Their husbands at first decried the cultural upheaval — who would take care of the children? But by the time I visited Boeung Kak earlier this year, nearly two years of protest had passed. And most men seemed to have slipped into a new subservient role, sipping black iced coffee and smoking Ara cigarettes late into the afternoons. They grinned, baring yellow teeth. “In Boeung Kak,” one husband told me, “the women have power.”

But, really, in Cambodia only one person has power: Hun Sen. With a cultural fatalism that pervades Cambodia, Vanny says her story has a clear trajectory if Hun Sen sticks around. Last Wednesday, another protest leader, Chut Wutty, who’s inveighed against the government for years for illegal logging, was shot dead by the military in Koh Kong Province. Vanny says the same could happen to her, or she’ll end up with the others who have dared to question Hun Sen’s authority.

“In a black cell.”

This piece is an excerpt from the new Kindle Single, "The Playgound."