Perspective

I arrived safe-and-sound in New York on Monday, although the jet lag was far worse coming home than going.  A week later and I’m still recovering!

Reflecting on my month in Cambodia, the word that keeps coming to mind is perspective.  Living in a developing country for 31 days is far different than visiting for a few days or even a week or two.  I really found myself immersed in the culture, from the language (at least enough to get around by tuk-tuk) to the food. I also came away with a newfound appreciation for Cambodia’s history, both ancient and more recent.

One cannot understand Cambodia without studying the atrocities of Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge regime. Close to one-third of the country’s population was killed. The regime also destroyed the country’s institutions: its legal and educational systems, art, music, commerce … all gone.  Rebuilding the country will take generations. In many respects, the country is starting from scratch. Pol Pot called it “Year Zero,” and, in many ways, he was successful at returning the country back in time. Thankfully, Cambodia has the support of the United Nations, foreign governments, and terrific folks at NGOs.  More importantly, many of its people—such as the students I worked with at RULE—are committed to improving the country. They’ve established structures to resolve disputes peacefully and with integrity; they are also working to improve working conditions for their fellow citizens.

My time in Cambodia has given me a new perspective on many of the things we take for granted in the United States. As imperfect as our legal system can be, we are fortunate to have a system of publicly available laws and that our institutions are based on rule-of-law principles.

Teaching at RULE has also offered me a new perspective on education. One of the most rewarding aspects of my experience was how it allowed me to focus on the fundamentals of teaching, free from a lot of the bureaucratic aspects of working in a highly regulated industry like American legal education. I was able to focus on the core aspects of teaching: establishing goals for my students, using teaching techniques that would achieve those goals, and assessing whether students met the goals I had established for them. The experienced reinforced that technology is an aid in teaching; a fancy PowerPoint is not, itself, teaching. At times, all I had was a marker and a whiteboard, but I made it work. The experience also reminded me of the importance of meeting students where they are, educationally.  For many of my students, English was a second language. I adjusted accordingly.  Adaptation was really the name of the game.  I learned to take things in stride, such as when the air conditioning was not functioning as well as it should.

So, I return to my administrative and teaching responsibilities with a renewed appreciation for the role of legal education in society and the value of teaching in a simple, clear manner that focuses on achieving stated outcomes. I also have a newfound respect for the people of Cambodia and the importance of telling their story. Many Americans have never heard of Pol Pot. Those who have are often surprised to learn that the genocide he inflicted occurred in our lifetimes.

Serving as a Fulbright Specialist has been one of the highlights of my career, and I’m grateful to those who supported me and gave me this opportunity: the administrators at RULE; my students; the staff at the Embassy, CIES, and IIIE; my dean, Michael Simons; my colleagues back home who put up with my frequent video conferences and emails received at very odd times; and, of course, my husband, Jonnathan, who held down the fort at home.  As they say in Cambodia, arkoun chraen (“thank you very much”).

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A Somber Day

Since I had been away in Siem Riep, Ho Chi Minh City, and Kep in previous weekends, I had not yet had an opportunity to explore Phnom Penh.  So, I spent my last weekend doing just that.

Understanding Cambodia begins with understanding and appreciating its recent history. In the late 1970s, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia. They wanted to establish an agrarian, Marxist society. They forcibly evacuated the cities, marched people to the countryside, and forced them to work as rice farmers. The Khmer Rouge were brutal. They executed anyone they perceived as intellectual: lawyers, teachers, people with glasses (so far I would be 0 for 3!), doctors, musicians, and foreign workers. At detention centers, they tortured people into giving false confessions that implicated others.  Estimates are that about one-third of Cambodia’s population was killed during the Khmer Rouge regime, somewhere in the order of 1.7-3.0 million people. The regime was eventually driven out by Vietnamese forces.

Again, this happened only 40 years ago.

The effects of the genocide will be felt for generations. The Khmer Rouge didn’t just kill people, they eradicated institutions: family, law, education, art, music, and commerce, to name a few. I’ve been struck by how few elderly people I have seen during my month. The other day, I saw one man in his 60s.  He was missing two limbs (most likely from torture or encountering  a landmine) and was begging for food on the side of the road. Cambodia is a young country, and their young people don’t have institutional history to rely upon.  In law, estimates are that the Khmer Rouge eliminated all but a handful of law-trained individuals.  How does a legal system rebuild when it has no leaders?

On Saturday, I visited two sites.  The first was Choeung Ek, also known as the “Killing Fields,” located just outside of Phnom Penh.  It was very moving.  Choeung Ek was one of several places were people would be taken to be killed.  Throughout the visit, one is reminded that the genocide occurred very recently. I was particularly struck by the strips of clothing and blindfolds that are still on the ground in the site.  Note that some of the photos below may be difficult to view. They include a memorial with hundreds of skulls that were reclaimed from the site.

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Afterwards, I visited the infamous Tuol Sleng prison in Phnom Penh.  Tuol Sleng, also known as “Security Prison 21” or S-21, was a school that was converted into a torture facility.  Picture-taking was not permitted inside the cells—probably for good reason. It was very graphic and upsetting to see the tools of torture in-person.

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Final Week at RULE

I wrapped up my final class on Thursday. Students were eager to take selfies, group pictures, and one of my classes wanted a whole group shot.

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Second year students studying Public International Law

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First year students

I will miss my students. Overall, they were well-prepared, eager to learn, and welcoming to this American visitor.  The future of their country is in their hands.  I give them credit for looking to build their knowledge and skills in the law, at a time when the country desperately needs good people in all of its institutions.

On Friday, I gave a talk as part of the LL.M. program’s Friday night lecture series, which brings in guest lecturers to talk about a variety of topics.  My lecture involved the inconsistent way in which the law treats children.  It is based on my article in the U.C. Davis Journal of Juvenile Law and Policy.

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I also had the opportunity to meet with the executive director and staff of the Arbitration Council Foundation.  The Arbitration Council was setup as a non-judicial means to resolve collective labor disputes.  It is one of the few institutions in Cambodia that is held in high regard.

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Legal Research When Laws are Not Publicly Available

I had my last class tonight.  This week, my three courses were covering the same topic: writing memos in a common law jurisdiction.  (For non-lawyer friends, very basically stated, in a “common law” country, like the United States, judges’ decisions become precedent for future cases.  When a court comes up with a legal interpretation, it will bind lower courts and future decisions of the same court. In contrast, in a “civil law” country like France or Cambodia, judges interpret and apply codes but are not bound by precedent of other judges.)  Afterwards, a number of students wanted group pictures and selfies, to which I happily obliged.  Overall, I’ve been struck by how kind and welcoming the RULE students have been to me, an outsider. 

A few weeks ago, when I was teaching legal research, I was struck by how few legal resources are publicly available in Cambodia.  In the United States, we take for granted that statutes, judicial opinions, regulations, and other sources of law are available.  True, you often have to pay for them, but at least they are available.  Not so in Cambodia. Judicial opinions are all but impossible to come by. Even if you go down to the court and ask to see a case, the clerk or administrator will not show it to you. Accurate versions of legislation are also tough to come by. Various websites or offices will have what they claim to be the current version of legislation, but often it’s a draft or working copy of proposed legislation. The issue gets further complicated when you’re looking for accurate English translations. I would settle for a central repository of laws in Khmer, but no such luck. The existing sites are simply too unreliable. It is unclear whether a given law is up to date or not.   

This is a major challenge for Cambodia’s legal system moving forward.  One of the principles of rule of law is that the laws of a country must be publicly accessible.  If they are hidden, the government loses legitimacy.   

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Final Meetings

Although I’m primarily spending my time here teaching Legal Writing courses, I have also met with several NGOs, learning about what they do and offering whatever advice I can.

Yesterday—before I went to the hospital—I met with the legal staff of the Cambodia office of International Justice Mission. IJM works to combat human trafficking. Currently, their focus is on labor trafficking. Their legal team assists prosecutors by lending their expertise and resources to criminal prosecutions, effectively “second seating” trials.  They also conduct trainings of police and provide support to victims. It is a very impressive operation.  Their website has a number of reports about their work.

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Today, staying closer to home, I met with researchers for the Center for the Study of Humanitarian Law, which is based at RULE.  We discussed strategies for legal writing and research. The researchers also teach in RULE’s very successful English Language Based Bachelor of Laws program, which includes several courses in Legal Writing, so they approached the subject as both teachers and researchers.

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A Souvenir

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While in Vietnam 10 days ago, I slipped and fell on, literally, a “slippery slope.”  I took a hard fall on my wrist.  It didn’t get any better, so I popped over to the Royal Phnom Penh Hospital near the airport to get it x-rayed.  Turns out I have a bad sprain.  It’s thankfully not broken.

The hospital was amazing—beautiful, clean, and modern. They even come around and serve you water. The best part: it only cost $47, including x-rays and the consultation with a surgeon, who is a Thai doctor.  The hospital can treat most minor ailments.  For more major problems, they will fly the patient to a sister hospital in Thailand.

I joked that the next time I need an x-ray, it’ll probably be cheaper to fly to Cambodia and get it done at this hospital.

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Kep – Part II

Alas, not too much to report for Kep, Day 2.  I’m under the weather. It only took 22 days in-country, but I finally caught a stomach bug – probably from the nice crab dinner I had last night. Up all night and now rehydrating today. Ironically, this is the nicest day so far in Cambodia, the first one where the Sun has been out most of the day.

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Beautiful day in Kep. Too bad I’m spending it in bed.

By the way, several people have asked me if the water is safe to drink. It’s not. Every hotel I’ve stayed at has had bottles of water in the bathroom for use in brushing one’s teeth. I’ve been told that the water itself is filtered up at its source, but the issue is the pipes.  So, bottled water everywhere.  First thing I did when I got here was to buy a few cases of 1.5L water bottles. I typically drink 1.5-2 a day.  The heat can dehydrate a person very quickly.  As far as I can tell, there’s no recycling here, so there’s a lot of waste from discarded bottles.

When people get sick here, their first instinct is often to go to a pharmacy and buy antibiotics. Drugs are over-the-counter here; no prescription is needed. If a drug-resistant super-bug starts, I’m quite confident it will come from this part of the world!  (No, I’m not buying any antibiotics for my current bug.)

Back to Phnom Penh tomorrow. This is my final week of teaching at RULE, and I’ll be delivering a public lecture on the legal status of children on Friday night. Flight back home a week from today, Sunday the 30th, wheels down at JFK on the 31st.

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