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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.

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."