Multimedia monk scoops human rights gong

Venerable Luon Sovath, a Buddhist monk from Cambodia, has won a top human rights award - the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders 2012.

Known as the ‘multimedia monk’, Sovath has collected video evidence of communities caught up in land disputes and forced evictions. He’s supported activists taken to court and imprisoned for peacefully standing up for their rights. And he’s used songs and art to convey his messages, to promote the peaceful struggle for human rights.

He’s probably most well-known for his intervention in Chi Kreng, where 175 families, including his brother and nephews, were forcibly evicted from the farmland they had depended on for food and livelihoods since the 1980s. Without provocation, police opened fire and injured four villagers during the eviction, which some villagers filmed on mobile phones. Sovath collected the footage, and filmed his own of the aftermath, recording those who were shot and injured, including members of his own family.

Despite threats from police, Sovath refused to hand over the video, apparently retorting “What law did I break?” He eventually did give them the recordings, but not before he’d been able to distribute it widely to human rights groups around the country.

These forced evictions and ‘land grabbing’ are sensitive issues for the Cambodian authorities so it’s perhaps not surprising that Sovath has faced death threats, harassment, and arrests for his work. Senior religious officials have even banned him from pagodas around the capital Phnom Penh.

And it seems the Cambodian authorities don’t care who knows about their tactics. The video at the top shows the multimedia monk being violently forced into a waiting car by men believed to be from the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Cults. Alongside family members and other supporters, Sovath was standing in support of 13 women human rights defenders who’d been arrested during a peaceful protest against a forced eviction. What strikes me most about this recording is how little the police seem to be bothered by the cameras recording their violent behaviour.

After being forced into the car Sovath was held in detention and denied communication with the outside world for 10 hours before being released, long after the 13 women were sentenced. He was threatened with defrocking and with criminal charges, but he refused to stop his human rights work. I imagine he repeatedly and calmly asked “Why? What law did I break?”

We hope that this international recognition of Venerable Sovath sends a positive message to all human rights defenders in Cambodia, and reminds the Cambodian authorities of their obligations under international law to respect human rights. I am heartened that Sovath, and many others, will keep recording them until they do.

This is a guest post from Janice Beanland, our research HQ's Cambodia Campaigner. Find out more about Amnesty’s work to end forced evictions

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