McCoy became fluent in Khmer during a two-year stint with the Peace Corps in Cambodia and is now completing a one-year Master’s program in journalism at Columbia University. For his Master’s project, he returned to Cambodia to investigate the tactics of Chinese corporations. His crisp, vivid narrative depicts the one-sided battles that rage between developers intent on having their way with the less-powerful and villagers hoping to cling to their homes. In one village, “Soldiers had Tasered and sent to prison dozens of villagers — including two children — with their heads bashed,” McCoy writes, adding that one woman, distraught over her eviction, killed herself by leaping off a bridge over the Mekong River.
What separates McCoy’s book from other tales of authoritarian capitalism run amok is his discovery of a unique form of protest — led by a most uncommon rebel. During his Peace Corps years, McCoy writes, “I’d gotten to know hundreds of Cambodians, dozens of them intimately, and thought I’d met every sort of Khmer personality the country had to offer. But then I met Vanny.”
Vanny Tep is a former fashion model whose “life, she says, has no space for vanity” and who, at 32, “has become the de facto leader of a [Phnom Penh]-based grassroots movement against the government, violent land eviction, and development itself,” McCoy writes. He tags along with her to a meeting of rebels in the village of Boeung Kak, a fishing village once rich in freshwater fish and water buffalo, and now “something out of a post-apocalyptic film, barren and cragged” after nearly two-thirds of its 20,000 residents have fled because of violence and intimidation. The Boeung Kak rebels at the meeting are not the angry men you’d expect but a group of about 20 boisterous women.
A few years ago, Vanny had a realization about the power of women protesters. While Cambodian soldiers willingly whack the skulls of male resisters, they hesitate before women. “It’s the Khmer way,” McCoy writes. “A man would be shamed if he publicly beat a woman.”
For Vanny, the route to effective protest was obvious: “I need to gather all the women,” she thought, and soon she had a resistance movement of young and old Cambodian women wearing Khmer scarves around their necks, waists or bandana-like around their heads as a symbol of resistance. Their protests befuddled the police and prevented violence. It also publicized their cause, even though the outlook for containing China’s corporate aggression is uncertain.
In McCoy’s adroit hands, the story doesn’t end on the public battlefield but goes inside the home, where the female protesters are also rattling Cambodian domestic traditions. Women whose lives typically revolve around child care, cooking and cleaning have found a new sense of power. Husbands, used to subservient wives, grumble and adjust. “This clash of tradition and gender equality,” McCoy writes, “represented not only a profound shift in culture, but another wrinkle in the story of development.”
is Book World’s nonfiction editor.