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“The police always threaten to arrest me, but they never do”

“The police always threaten to arrest me, but they never do”

Photographer:Fotograaf: Loraine Bodewes

Cambodian human rights activist Lim Kimsor (31) and her family were forced by their government to leave their house in the city of Phnom Penh in July 2009. The government gave several reasons: city beautification, construction of a drainage system, laying streets. It turned out that the land had been sold to private companies. Since 2011, Kimsor has been fighting this kind of corruption non-stop. That’s why she is staying in Maastricht for three months, as a participant of the Shelter Cities project of Justice and Peace Netherlands, a human rights and social justice organisation. This project enables human rights activists to catch a breath, continue their work safely, and do some networking by visiting a number of Dutch cities.

“’Land-grabbing’ by government officials, especially those affiliated with the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), is a major problem in Cambodia,” Kimsor says. “They make deals with large international investors who want to build luxury resorts for tourists, set up rubber plantations, or do some gold-mining. Some of these contracts have a lease of up to 99 years.”

“Most Cambodians do not have official documents for the land they live on, mainly because private property was abolished by the Khmer Rouge regime between 1975 and 1979,” Kimsor continues. “But even if you do have all the legal documents, going to court is useless. The Cambodian government is corrupt to the bone. They do whatever they want.” 

Public demonstration is the only option, it seems. Kimsor’s protest started with a Facebook group she set up in 2011: Youth for Khmer Nation, a page that now has more than fourteen thousand followers. “Facebook is an interesting place to demonstrate. I can quickly reach the community. We post every day and organise meetings regularly.” 

Two years later, Kimsor started to do voluntary work for Mother Nature Cambodia, an organisation that fights the destruction of Cambodian nature by exposing corruption. In 2017, she became a staff member. “In the morning, I get on my motorbike and ride around in our community to teach people about the tools they have to fight corruption. I give workshops about protesting and I help them if they want to organise a demonstration.”

It’s a dangerous job, Kimsor says. “The police are corrupt too and always threaten to arrest me, but they never do. I have become a familiar face and they know there will be media attention if they arrest me. Of course, they are afraid that the European Union or the United States will intervene.” 

Kimsor works every day. That’s also why she was hesitant to come to Maastricht for three months. “I’m afraid that the situation will get worse when I’m not around. My friends and colleagues pushed me to apply for the Shelter Cities Project. They thought I deserved it.” In fact, Kimsor was invited to the US embassy and was offered a grant via women's organization 'She Can' to study in the United States for a couple of years, but she feels she can’t leave until there is someone competent enough to take over her job. “I can’t leave Cambodia for that long.”

While in Maastricht, participants of the project are offered training in several areas. One of those was about digital security, Kimsor explains. “How do you know whether a Wi-Fi connection is safe? We learned to be careful with free networks in coffee shops for example. People might be watching what you are doing. Public Wi-Fi connections in my country are definitely not safe, they’re controlled by the city authorities.” In addition to the training, she’s following an English class at Maastricht University's Language Centre. “I sometimes have to write statements for international organisations and I want to write more in English on Facebook to get more attention for the situation in Cambodia.” 

Kimsor is very active during her stay in Maastricht, but the Shelter Cities project is primarily created to give human rights activists a break, an opportunity to rest and relax. “I can take free yoga classes and the project has assigned a meditation instructor. Every Tuesday, we meditate together. I also like to cycle around the city and in the coming weeks I also want to cycle to Belgium.” She pulls out a beautiful woollen scarf and a matching hat. “And I like to knit, I made these myself. In my spare time, I always want to do something with my hands. I can’t just watch TV or take a nap.”

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