Toul Srey Pov

Toul Srey Pov – Boeung Kak Lake.

Srey Pov is currently serving a two and a half year prison sentence for ‘disputing authority’ and illegally occupying land, arrested during a peaceful protest on the 22nd of May this year. She was arrested along with 12 other female activists while attending a protest being held by the 94 families who have been arbitrarily excluded from a 12.44 hectare land concession granted to those remaining families at Boeung Kak. Most of those in attendance, and six of the women in prison, including Srey Pov, have already been given land titles, and were attending the protests out of solidarity for those excluded families.

It is a cruel irony that the developer who evicts you from your home should have you arrested and imprisoned for occupying land that rightfully belongs to you. There is little doubt that the courts decision was in reality that of the Municipality, not that of an independent judge.

On a recent visit to the prison, I asked Srey Pov if there was anything we could do for her; it was one of those futile, hopeless questions that we ask when faced with an insurmountable problem that is in the end not our own, our shame is that we cannot share their suffering. Her reply was typical of her character; she needed nothing, she had enough food, but please do what we could for her children, make sure they continued with school and continued their studies, try not to let her imprisonment destroy their futures, as it inevitably could. I could not help but feel that her request was a futile as my question; such is their current situation. There is little hope that the future of all the prisoners’ children will not be seriously harmed if their parents (all 13 women are parents) are not released soon.

Now they spend their days at various actions and peaceful protests around Phnom Penh, outside various ministries and government institutions advocating for their parents release. The trajectory of the Boeung Kak protests is undergoing an evolutionary development from parent to child, passing on, from one generation to another, their fierce activism. It is not too surprising to see that Srey Pov’s daughter has emerged as a kind of leader among this group of young activists, although it is concerning to see how traumatised she is, she is a bright and fragile young person, who does not need to have such responsibilities.

Srey Pov has a fierce and uncompromising intellect; I have heard her ask profound and insightful questions on the difficult relationship between donor countries and Cambodia, questions that, as she is acutely aware, have no easy answers. She has always taken a leading role during protests that can often end in violent confrontations with police and military forces; she is a fearless advocate for her rights, continually strong and persistent, it is amazing to see how deep her reservoir of strength can be.

Over the last two years that I have been filming her and the Boeung Kak community, I have filmed innumerable protests, community and NGO partner meetings, violent evictions, religious ceremonies and press conferences during all of which one cannot help but feel somewhat at the mercy of these clever, media savvy activists. They understand the effectiveness of good media coverage, and the speed by which information can be spread via social networks. (Something that is very new to Cambodia, and must be a cause of concern for the government) The Boeung Kak community are endlessly inventive, original and inspiring in their peaceful protests, no doubt they will be the subject of some future doctoral thesis on (un?)successful peaceful protest tactics, their ideas are an activists handbook in the making.

Srey Pov has been at the frontlines of a battle that has pitched her community of some 4,000 families against a government that is a willing accomplice in the mass forced evictions of its own people, and against a developer that has at its disposal all of the organs of state and brutal military and police forces.

I have chosen to focus on one person out of the many women who make up the Boeung Kak League of Women Fighting for their Housing Rights, specifically because through Srey Pov I can tell the whole story of Boeung Kak. But it should be remembered that any one of these women from the Boeung Kak community could have been the focus of our film, they all share many of the same qualities as Srey Pov, but I saw in her something that set her apart from the others; a formidable intelligence and a profound understanding of their situation, and a pessimistic (and sadly probably realistic) view of their future.