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Notes from Cambodia

HREA's Director Felisa Tibbitts was in Cambodia in March of this year as part of a team supporting the development of a paralegal training manual for legal and community advisors working in the provinces. The project is being carried out by Pannasastra University, based in Phnom Penh, and her involvement is sponsored by the Open Society Justice Initiative. She wrote this reflective essay following her moving experiences in the country.

It's difficult to find the words to describe what it is like to be in Cambodia. I suppose the first thing I can say is that it took me by surprise. I was well aware of the genocide under the Pol Pot regime, of course, and was fairly up to date on the political situation (including some of the positive developments in what can only be called an ongoing dictatorship). But when I arrived at the training and looked around the room and saw the Cambodian faces, I had a flashback to the images of those incarcerated at Tuol Sleng. These are the images that briefly made international headlines, accompanying the story of the Killing Fields.

It is extremely unsettling, I must emphasize, to be in a room with older Cambodians who are clearly learned and well educated, and find yourself asking the question: How did they survive? Shouldn't they be dead? And, as you get to know the people, to learn that they well should have been, excepting for providence and harrowing journeys of escape. One of the people in the training and a leader in the paralegal training project that I am working on is Kassie Neou, who was profiled in Samantha Power's book Problem from Hell. Kassie is back in Cambodia now, where he is Secretary of State at the Ministry of Justice, but also working in the NGO sector to promote human rights and legal education.

As you come to understand the social and political conditions in Cambodia, you realize how formidable the challenges are. The current government is a dictatorship - still disappearing political opponents - and yet it is considered the most democratic in about 40 years. The country has been through hell. The Pol Pot period certainly had the most lasting damage, but before and after that, there were decades of civil war, occupation and dictatorship.

Opportunities for improvement are eagerly taken. The program I am involved with will help train community leaders to be paralegals - educating villagers about laws affecting them and helping to mediate outside the court system, which is notoriously corrupt. Most villagers wouldn't dream of approaching the police or traveling to the city to find a lawyer. They don't have the money for the travel or the bribes. So the paralegal program hopes to bring a little more order and justice to the communities, particularly in areas like "land grabbing" and domestic violence, which appear to be the most common problems.

But the country has lots of problems. Cambodia is one of the poorest countries in the world. Most children don't complete more then five years of education - if that - because their families need them to work on the farms. The priority is survival, in a country with limited health care and economic resources. At the national level, the problems loom even larger. Thousands of landmines are still unexploded and thousands of people are maimed or killed each year - thirty years after they were planted. The country is being deforested, affecting the environment in all of Southeast Asia. Sex trafficking is a huge, largely unchecked problem, along with HIV/AIDS. As one human rights worker told me, if you have any interest in human rights problems, just come to Cambodia. They are all here.

Under conditions of sheer survival and overwhelming problems, it's hard to know where to start. The complexity of the situation, especially for villagers, is simply overwhelming. For example, the problem of sex trafficking has received a huge amount of needed attention, but there are few services available for women who are battered. In some cases, people don't know rape is a crime, and they certainly don't report it. Gang rapes have become something of a fad in the larger cities, I was told, and young boys openly laugh and brag about it. Young girls who are raped in the villages must spend the rest of their lives in their homes, and many commit suicide. So what do we address first? And how do we do this? Even my enlightened translator snickered at the story one villager told of how the husband had become jealous of his wife wandering from their house to visit neighbors. He beat her senseless. Some find this drama of jealousy amusing.

Laughing at inappropriate behavior is common, one foreign national confided to me. It's part of the problem of Cambodians not knowing how to deal with their own pain. Outsiders have the image of the "smiling Cambodians," an American woman told me, but it's completely misplaced. They laugh because they really don't feel the empathy in the situation. It's one of the insidious consequences of the genocide.

Such a judgment seems rather facile, but it's interesting to ponder. When Pol Pot came into power, he emptied the cities, marching all the residents into the countryside in what would be for many a death march. Many Cambodians I spoke with were part of these marches and, terrified that they would be labeled for arrest, became completely anonymous in their new communities. One Cambodian woman told me that her mother had been a teacher and they did not want anyone to know about their previous life in Phnom Penh. So they changed their family name and became farmers. They never got to know their neighbors. The Cambodian countryside is apparently filled with family units that exist quite separately from their neighbors or at least with only functional information shared one to the other. There is also essentially no civil society in Cambodia. It is not hard to imagine that the cruelty waged on the Cambodian people during the Pol Pot era and the ensuing gag order on political thinking has created a generation of Cambodians who are focused on the welfare of their families and not much else. In fact, it would be perfectly understandable.

I got out to the Kampong Cham province, traveling through jungle that, in all seriousness, gave me flashbacks to the Vietnam Era movies. Like the photographs from Tuol Sleng, I didn't realize how deeply ingrained my images of the Vietnam War were until that moment. It was a bit terrifying, actually, something like the first time I traveled on an Aeroflot plane to Russia after the breakup in the Soviet Union. Something deep inside told me I should be anywhere but on that road to Kampong Cham. But our jeep carried on last week, and no napalm appeared. We traveled past rice paddies waiting to be revived in the May flooding, long extended plains of palm trees, glimpses of the Mekong River - a main waterway in the country - and the quiet work of sap collectors in expansive rubber tree plantations. We traveled past those famous Cambodian houses - the ones on stilts - and came to rest in many of them, speaking about local problems and the work of community leaders. If I had in the back of my mind these lingering images of Vietnam and genocide, right in front of me I had serious community leaders, dedicated to trying to make life a little easier for village members. The community leaders were helping us to understand the kinds of cases that they dealt with and the needs that they had, so that we and the local writers could take this into account when developing the paralegal training program.

We spoke with ten "citizen advisors" - in their homes, with homemade jasmine tea and a background of dog barks, pig grunts and chicken cackles. The citizen advisors were very serious and perhaps a little proud to tell us of the cases they had helped mediate. Land disputes, assaults, inheritance problems - mostly issues best solved outside of the police and courts. They spoke about the real problems they had - having to travel long distances by bike in order to reach villagers and a lack of informational handouts. No doubt they failed to tell us of more serious problems - the cases they could not solve, the fact that villagers cannot read and have no trust in the law. We were looking for good examples to use in the manual, after all, and we found them.

In the end, it is impossible not to hold some optimism for the country, because of the individual people that we met. Those citizen advisors in the villages are actually doing a fantastic job and meeting a real need in helping to solve local problems. The paralegal training program will be based in the villages and will coincide with a new clinical legal education training program in the country, one that will help channel young Cambodian's genuine interests to help others into law-related work. The Pol Pot regime exterminated the educated class, but time passes. I was in a classroom of 18 young university students and - if you forget how few Cambodians have the opportunity to go to college - you can simply be happy to know that these 18 are there, will be engaging in law-related education and paralegal services - and that things will be a little bit better because of it.

"I will miss you" my breakfast waitress said to me on my last morning in Cambodia. It was hard for me to believe that would be true, as I was one of literally hundreds of customers she would come across in the next month. Yet, she seemed genuine when she said it, and I couldn't also help thinking that I would miss being there myself. It's impossible not to be swept up in the tragedy of Cambodia's history and the energy of renewal that projects such as these bring with them. "I hope to be back," I smiled and said to my waitress. And I hope that I do.

Felisa Tibbitts
March 2005



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