Cambodians win release of prisoners taken during nonviolent invasion to defend neighborhood, 2012


To secure the release of 15 land activists from prison arrested during a nonviolent invasion on the land where their homes were buried under sand by construction company, Shukaku.

Time period notes

22 May, 2012 – 27th June

Time period

22 May, 2012 to 27 June, 2012



Location City/State/Province

Phnom Penh

Location Description

Boeung Kak Lake
Jump to case narrative

Methods in 6th segment

Segment Length

about 6 days

Notes on Methods

Technically the arrest of 13 activists during the 170. nonviolent invasion of the first segment is the trigger event leading to this campaign. The nonviolent invasion was part of the larger campaign to include 90 families in an on-site relocation plan, who are currently excluded from the plan.

In each segment I coded both 38. Marches and 46. Assemblies of protest as it was unclear from the sources what happened. In some cases both occurred and in others, possibly only an assembly.

In the first segment a women shaved her head in public during a religious ceremony. I coded this as 007. slogans, caricatures and symbols as it was mostly a symbolic gesture to invoke the spirits to free the women. I considered coding it as 22. Protest disrobing, but the description and effect is not the same.


Tep Vanny, Bo Chhorvy, unnamed community activists from Boeung Kak Lake


Venerable Loun Sovath (monk),

External allies

Licadho, Licadho Canada, US Secretary of State, Asian Human Rights Watch, CCHR, Housing Rights Task Force (HRTF), Sahmakum Teang Tnaut (STT), Adhoc, (in 2011 the World Bank made the Boeung Kak Lake conflict a pre-requisite for further (new) loans), Cambodian Confederation of Unions, Leaders and Organizers of Community Organization in Asia (LOCOA), Mu Sochua, US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton,

Involvement of social elites

Prince Norodom Ranaridh


Shukaku Inc, CPP Senator Lao Meng Khin, Court of Appeals,

Nonviolent responses of opponent

not known

Campaigner violence

not known

Repressive Violence

5 adults and 7 children from Boeung Kak Lake were beaten and kicked by police. One pregnant women lost her unborn child.


Human Rights



Group characterization

land activists

Groups in 1st Segment

Amnesty International
Equitable Cambodia

Groups in 2nd Segment

Front Line Defenders
Freedom House
Southeast Asian Press Alliance
Civil Rights Defenders
Amnesty International
Human Rights Watch

Groups in 3rd Segment

Cambodian Confederation of Unions (CCU)
Prince Norodom Ranaridh

Groups in 4th Segment

US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton

Groups in 6th Segment

Leaders and Organizers of Community Organization in Asia (LOCOA)

Segment Length

about 6 days

Success in achieving specific demands/goals

6 out of 6 points


1 out of 1 points


3 out of 3 points

Total points

10 out of 10 points

Notes on outcomes

The campaign goal was fuzzy. The core goal was to secure the release of the 15 incarcerated activists, which was met. However, the conviction was not overturned and many saw that as less than 100 per cent victory. This goal was never made explicit until the Court of Appeals freed the 15 while ruling that they had served their time, but not exonerating them of the charges. The activists further appealed to overturn the charges. I rate the success as 6 because the original stated goal (release) was met.

On Growth, there was no formal campaign organisation, rather campaign organisation occured through a combination of activist-led planning and a constellation of organisations who provided support. This grew very quickly and included a key international ally, Sec. of State Hilary Clinton.

Database Narrative

Phnom Penh, Cambodia, is situated on the confluence of four rivers: the Upper and Lower Mekong rivers, the Bassac River and the Tonle Sap river. The surrounding area is flat and low-lying, subject to annual flooding. Natural lakes formed as the rivers changed course over time and communities grew up around the edges of these lakes, using them for fishing and aquatic agriculture. 

Today, with the increase of urban population, and subsequent increase of value in land, new urban settlements are built further away from the centre of the capital city. One strategy to avoid this issue by developers includes the filling in of lakes inside and around the central city limits. 

The effects of this strategy include increased flooding during the wet season and, most disturbingly, forced evictions. One such lake community experiencing this phenomenon is Boeung Kak Lake (BKL), formerly the largest natural lake in Phnom Penh.

In 2007, Shukaku Inc was awarded a 99-year lease for Boeung Kak lake with the plan to fill in the lake and build housing and offices. This agreement was made without consultation with the roughly 20,000 people (more than 4000 families) who lived on or around the lake. 

At this time no one knew who owned Shukaku. Later information emerged that it was partly owned by Lao Meng Khin a senator for Cambodia's ruling party, the Cambodian People's Party.

The Boeung Kak community has waged a long campaign to protect their homes since Shukaku began filling the lake with sand dredged from the nearby Mekong River in August 2008. By April 2012 more than 3500 families have been forced out, or left under mounting pressure and intimidation. 

After the grassroots campaign joined by the World Bank imposing a lending freeze on Cambodia, the Cambodian government issued a sub-decree granting land titles to the remaining residents (about 800 families). Five hundred of these families had received title by December 2011. 

About 90 families were left out of the title deal.

On May 22, 2012 18 families excluded from the title deal gathered at Boeung Kak Lake where their homes once stood, now either demolished or submerged under tons of sand. The residents erected simple structures and sang songs together in an action of nonviolent invasion, claiming their right to title.

Dozens of heavily armed police quickly arrived and 13 women were arrested. Two days later the Phnom Penh Municipal Court found the 13 guilty of incitement and sentenced them to prison. Sentence lengths ranged from one year to two and a half years. Two more villagers who were present at the trial as defence witnesses were also arrested. Community members travelled to the municipal court where they believed the women were held.

Family members of the 15 arrested, plus supporters from the Boeung Kak Lake community, gathered at Tep Vanny's house as the first of more than 12 solidarity actions over the course of the next month, vowing to fight for their release. The same day supporters went to Ang Metrie pagoda to pray and ask the spirits to help free the women. One woman supporter shaved her head as part of the ceremony.

Given the long standing nature of the larger campaign, starting in 2007, the Boeung Kak community had a wide range of existing allies and partners. Within days public letters were published in the local English-language newspapers, first by nine NGOs (both Cambodian and International) then by over one hundred NGOs.

Mu Sochua, a high-profile opposition member of the National Assembly, called on US Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton to intervene. Mu Sochua flew to Washington to meet with Ms Clinton. Ms Clinton released a statement on June 15 urging the release of the fifteen. The US is a major donor country to the Royal Government of Cambodia.

Each solidarity action included noticeable and meaningful symbols. The blue kramar (Cambodian scarf) is a long-held symbol of human rights in the country. A budding lotus flower, a visual connection to the water of the lake and Buddhism, became the main symbol of the “Free the 15!” campaign. Also, the children of the arrested activists were highly visible and vocal in each action wearing paper hats with messages calling for their release. Freedom songs have become a core of Cambodian community activists and at each gathering or action song was used to highlight the campaign goals to free the fifteen activists.

A number of the solidarity actions involved attempts to present mass petitions to various official bodies including the Ministry of Justice, the National Assembly, the Embassies of Japan the US and the EU,  and the Royal Palace. The Cambodian official bodies refused to accept the petitions, however, Rong Chhun of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions successfully filed a petition to King Norodom Sihamoni.

On June 9, four of the women in prison began a fast in protest of their three-hour trial and conviction. No witnesses for the defence had been allowed in court. Many observers, including Amnesty International and the Community Legal Education Centre, made published legal analyses highlighting that the process contravened legal procedure. Within three days two more women joined the fast. On June 17, two of the jailed activists,  Ly Channary and Sao Sareoun, were released and the fast was called off.

Calls for the release of the fifteen activists came from both inside and outside Cambodia, with key bilateral donors, such as the US, making public statements of support.

On June 20, following an announcement that the Court of Appeals would hear the case (the Ministry of Justice sent a letter on May 31 ordering the Court of Appeals to re-examine the sentencing), about 80 Boeung Kak villagers demonstrated in front of the Court. The supporters held signs saying “Children need their mothers” and, “Free the 15 Now.” They then marched to the shrine by the Royal Palace. The group was monitored by undercover and military police.

Seven NGOs wrote an open letter asking for twenty-two embassies to send observers to the Appeal hearing.

On June 26,  around 25 community organizers from Korea, the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand and Burma assembled in protest at the Cambodian Embassy in South Korea.

On June 27, after a 4-hour trial, the 13 remaining activists were released with “time served.” Outside the Appeals court, hundreds of supporters gathered. At least 5 community villagers and 7 community children were beaten by police, including a 27-year-old woman who lost her 2-3 month unborn child after being viciously kicked by riot police.

Following the release of the activists, hundreds of supporters celebrated along the water front in Phnom Penh and in the village at Boeung Kak Lake.

The verdict from the Appeals Court was met with mixed responses. Mu Sochua stated that the remained guilty verdict did not matter, rather it was the people's actions that defined justice. Other activists were outraged that the guilty verdict was not overturned. Some of the formerly jailed activists have since gone back to court attempting to have their guilty verdicts annulled.


Boueng Kak Lake residents began a nonviolent campaign in 2007/8 against Shukaku Inc's plans to fill in the lake and evict 4000 families (1).


Amnesty International (2012, 29 May). INGO Letter: Vacate convictions against BKL human rights defenders. Retrieved from

Amnesty International (2012, 26 June). Cambodia: Imprisoned for speaking out – Update on Phnom Penh’s Boeung Kak Lake. Retrieved from

Chakrya, K.S. (2012, 23 May). Arrests greet symbolic Boeung Kak gesture. The Phnom Penh Post. Retrieved from

Chakrya, K.S. (2012, 24 May). Boeung Kak 13 held without charge. The Phnom Penh Post. Retrieved from

Chakrya, K.S. (2012, 29 May). Boeung Kak Takes Case To Assembly. The Phnom Penh Post. Retrieved from

Chakrya, K.S. (2012, 06 June). Boeung Kak royal petition stymied. The Phnom Penh Post. Retrieved from

Chakrya, K.S. (2012, 08 June). Visits short for jailed Boeung Kak spouses. The Phnom Penh Post. Retrieved from

Chakrya, K.S. (2012, 11 June). Boeung Kak women on hunger strike. The Phnom Penh Post. Retrieved from

Chakrya, K.S. (2012, 13 June). Ministry eyes Boeung Kak sentence. The Phnom Penh Post. Retrieved from

Chakrya, K.S. (2012, 14 June). Boeung Kak 13 case shifts to Appeal Court. The Phnom Penh Post. Retrieved from

Chakrya, K.S. (2012, 18 June). Boeung Kak duo's release sparks hope. The Phnom Penh Post. Retrieved from:

Chakrya, K.S. (2012, 19 June). Boeung Kak Protest Continues On Queen Mother's Birthday. The Phnom Penh Post. Retrieved from

Chakrya, K.S. and Worrell, S. (2012, 25 May). Boeung Kak women jailed after three-hour trial. The Phnom Penh Post. Retrieved from

Chakrya, K.S. and Worrell, S. (2012, 28 May). Boeung Kak 13 to appeal. The Phnom Penh Post. Retrieved from

Chakrya, K.S. and Worrell, S. (2012, 01 June). Boeung Kak children’s tearful plea. The Phnom Penh Post. Retrieved from

Chakrya, K.S. and Worrell, S. (2012, 12 June). Report slams Boeung Kak 13 sentencing. The Phnom Penh Post. Retrieved from

Free the 15! (2012, 22 May). Condemnation of unjustified & violent response to peaceful demonstration by boeung kak residents. Retrieved from

Free the 15! (2012, 27 May). Ngos condemn baseless convictions and violence against cambodian human rights defenders. Retrieved from

Free the 15! (2012, 28 May). Free the 15! Solidarity action at the national assembly. Retrieved from

Free the 15! (2012, 29 May). 9 ingos in open letter to hun sen: vacate convictions and drop charges against 15 bkl activists. Retrieved from

Free the 15! (2012, 31 May). 100 Ngos Open Letter To World Bank: Maintain Lending Freeze. Retrieved from

Free the 15! (2012, 31 May). Free The 15! Solidarity Action #3 In Front Of The Ministry Of Justice. Retrieved from

Free the 15! (2012, 3 June). Solidarity Action #4: Candlelight Vigil To Free The 15! Retrieved from

Free the 15! (2012, 6 June). Solidarity Action #5: Ceremony To Free The 15! Retrieved from

Free the 15! (2012, 8 June). Solidarity Action #6: Hey Senator, Free The 15! Retrieved from

Free the 15! (2012, 11 June). Solidarity Action #7: Songs To Free The 15! Retrieved from

Free the 15! (2012, 11 June). Solidarity Action #8: Calling On The King – Free The 15! Retrieved from

Free the 15! (2012, 13 June). Solidarity Action #9: Donor Dear, Help Us Live Free From Fear – Free The 15! Retrieved from

Free the 15! (2012, 18 June). Queen’s Birthday Marked By Solidarity Action #10 To Free The 15! Retrieved from

Free the 15! (2012, 20 June). Solidarity Action #11 To Free The 15! Getting Set For The Appeal. Retrieved from

Free the 15! (2012, 25 June). Getting Ready For The Appeal – Solidarity Action #12 To Free The 15! Retrieved from

Free the 15! (2012, 25 June). Open Letter: 7 Ingos Ask 22 Embassies To Send Observers To June 27 Appeal. Retrieved from

Free the 15! (2012, 26 June). Korean Calls To Free The 15! Retrieved from

Free the 15! (2012, 28 June). Celebrating A Release, But Not Justice. Retrieved from

Inclusive Development International (2012). Lake Evictions. Retrieved from

The Phnom Penh Post (2012, 5 June). Boeung Kak disgrace prompts renewed lobbying of World Bank. Retrieved from

The Phnom Penh Post. Retrieved from

Titthara, M. and Worrell, S. (2012, 30 May). Boeung Kak women kept away from NGO, reporters. Retrieved from

Worrell, S. and Chkrya, K.S. (2012, 05 June). Boeung Kak women visited by MPs. The Phnom Penh Post. Retrieved from

Worrell, S. and Chkrya, K.S. (2012, 15 June). US calls for release of Boeung Kak activists. The Phnom Penh Post. Retrieved from

Worrell, S. and Chkrya, K.S. (2012, 27 June). 'Boeung Kak 13' to be released. The Phnom Penh Post. Retrieved from

Worrell, S. and Chkrya, K.S. (2012, 28 June). Freedom rings for Boeung Kak 13. The Phnom Penh Post. Retrieved from

Additional Notes

This solidarity campaign is part of a larger campaign for Boeung Kak Lake residents not included in a recent settlement deal to be included in on-site housing, rather than eviction. The larger campaign is ongoing. (1)

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy

Chris Baker Evens 25/07/2012