Since I moved to Cambodia last year, I’ve had more than a few people tell me that they think I’m pretty brave for living here. I’ll let the secret out – I’m not.

The truth is that for a traveler, the so-called Kingdom of Wonder truly lives up to its name. Whatever you’re looking for, Cambodia’s probably got it. You can fly through the capital high as a kite on cheap drugs, cigarettes and booze; be spiritually awakened at the ancient temples of Angkor Wat; or relax among mountains and rivers in a sleepy provincial town that was once the playing-ground of the French colonial elite. Assuming you don’t go looking for trouble, you don’t have to be all that brave. And if trouble finds you, as a traveler, you almost always have the luxury of getting the hell out.

But that doesn’t mean there’s not an ugly side – the massive gap between the rich and poor, the rapid and brutal destruction of homes, forests, rivers, and oceans, and the blatant absence of basic rights for so many – this is the other side to the country; a side that casual travelers may be oblivious to, but of which Cambodians are painfully aware. Most abysmal is the violent retribution of those who try to speak out and fight for their rights in the country they call home.

In the nine months I’ve been here, this violence has escalated. To be honest, it’s getting scary. But I’m not the one who has to be brave. Cambodians are.

The first story I wrote here was about a local man who was beaten unconscious by police forces for trying to save a few families’ homes from demolition. The beating was wild and brutal, but the craziest part was that the whole thing was broadcast on YouTube, the video coming to a close as the man laid limp and bloody on the ground. I spoke to him after he had some time to recover. This is what he said:

“I love the Khmer people, I live for Khmer and I can die for Khmer … they said they wanted to kill me, but I said I won’t stop unless you stop harming people and you start to respect the law. I will sacrifice my life to protect the villagers.”

That’s brave.

A few weeks ago I spoke to two of three women who were shot during a protest at the garment factory where they work for around three dollars a day. Between the three of them, they are now littered with six bullet holes, with one woman almost dying from a shot that went into her chest and out her back. It turned out that the sole suspect in the case was the local governor. Town authorities allegedly tried to silence the women with bribes, but eventually they collectively agreed to press charges against one of the most powerful men in town. They said it was the only way they could hope to find justice.

That’s brave.

In probably the highest profile case of late, an environmental activist named Chut Wutty was shot dead while investigating what he claimed was illegal logging in the forests of Koh Kong. The reaction of Cambodians was incredible. They organized hundreds of people from across the country to return to the spot where Wutty was killed. They said they needed to continue the investigation to which he was so dedicated before his murder.

I’m moved to write about this today, as yet another activist has been suppressed in Cambodia just this morning. His name is Venerable Loun Sovath, a monk in Cambodia well known for his peaceful activism based on his firmly held Buddhist beliefs. For years he’s been calling for change in Cambodia, despite threats from all angles to silence him. Today he was arrested at a protest, shoved into a car and driven away, allegedly to be defrocked.

Earlier this year I met Sovath in Canada, where he was invited by the Khmer Diaspora to speak about human rights in Cambodia. After the event, in a small Buddhist temple on the outskirts of Montreal, Sovath spoke to me for hours about his life, his hopes for his country, and his fearless attitude toward the powers against him – powers that are so afraid of peaceful activism, they’ll resort to violence to squash it.

The experience was nothing less than inspirational, but looking back, much of what he said seems eerily ominous. I haven’t spoken to him since his arrest, but I’m fairly certain of one thing – I’m sure he’s not surprised. He’s seen this coming all along.

“It is very difficult working for human rights and democracy in Cambodia,” he told me earlier this year. “Step by step, the authorities want to stop my activity. But the more they try to stop, the more I am strong and stand up. Again and again, more and more … I’m just trying to help following the Buddhist rule, the democracy rule, the human rights rule.”

Sovath will go anywhere he sees injustice  – he was one of the hundreds who trekked through Koh Kong after Wutty’s death – but he’s most vocal about land rights in Cambodia, an issue he became personally invested in after police shot both his brother and nephew during a land dispute with farmers in 2009. Four days after the shooting, he had already made a documentary about the incident and was using it “to educate the people to know the power of themselves.”

Sovath is always using media like this to spread information – information he says many Cambodians are not privy to.

“The Khmer people have low education because they are poor. When they are poor, they have no money to study … and so some people they don’t know: ‘What are human rights? What is democracy?’ The government keeps the information, they keep the media from broadcasting about human rights, about democracy, or law.”

In a voice that somehow still rings with a childlike innocence, Sovath recalled how authorities confiscated his documentary and told him that if he didn’t stop showing it, they’d find other ways to stop him. He seemed almost bewildered:

“Me, I’m the symbol of peace, the symbol of non-violence. The monk has no power, no gun, only non-violence, only the symbol of justice. If you accuse me of wrong … what law did I break?”

Some religious officials claim he’s breaking the monastic code, and they’ve banned him from all pagodas. Sovath said that even Buddhism in Cambodia was not free from the political pressure of those in power.

“Because of politics in Buddhism they can control it, because they are afraid that if the monks join in social work, it’s strong … they are afraid to lose power, because this would make the government stop the suffering of Cambodia.”

Those who care about Sovath often plea with him to leave the country, as he has placed himself open to danger. He told me that Cambodia was home, and he couldn’t be convinced to hide from its problems.

“Sometimes they accuse and threaten and defrock [monks], and those monks were stopped. Some monks go outside and escape from Cambodia as refugees. Until now, there has been no monk like me because they are afraid. They are afraid because they know it is very dangerous.

“Still, my heart, my activity, I’m still strong. Because I’ll do anything to help the people that are suffering.”

The last thing Sovath said to me was this:

“My safety right now … I’m not sure. Today it’s okay, but tomorrow I don’t know. I may be stopped from doing anything, but right now I try to help, continue and continue. I won’t stop. So my safety in the future … I’m not sure.”

That’s pretty brave.

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