Adventures in Rural Cambodia| June 24, 2009
It’s been awhile since I last wrote on here, but it’s been so hectic for the last few weeks! I have been traveling the country, both with friends and for work. A few weeks ago, I decided to visit Rabbit Island, a tiny little almost-deserted island off the coast of Kep, for a weekend. I went with 10 other interns who are staying in Phnom Penh. We got up really early on Saturday in order to catch the bus, then jumped into a rickety little boat that I was sure would capsize for a half-hour ride into the sea, before arriving at Rabbit Island. There was no dock there, so we had to jump into the hot shallow water by the beach and carry our shoes and bags to shore. Those of us who wore shorts were lucky, but a few people made the mistake of wearing pants, and had to walk the rest of the way in soaking wet clothes. We had to hike over a big hill, through a jungle-like path, until we arrived at a beach with some ramshackle huts, optimistically called bungalows. For the price of $7 a night, two people could stay in one of these bungalows, with a perfect view of the ocean. There were bison, goats, chickens and dogs everywhere.
The entire trip was amazing. The beach looked just like a scene from the TV show Lost. We ate fresh seafood for every meal, and drank coconut milk straight from the shell while laying in hammocks over the water. We only stayed for one night, but it ranks among the best beach vacations I have ever taken.
On Monday, my boss returned to work from his trip to Switzerland, which meant that it was time for me to move to Takeo. We meant to go on Tuesday, however, we found out about a client being held in Kampot, about two hours further south from Takeo. Instead of dropping me off at my new workplace, Vandeth, Caroline (the other IBJ intern), and I went to Takeo to pick up my Takeo supervisor, and traveled to Kampot together.
In Cambodia, lawyers must get written permissions from the court in order to meet with their clients who are held in pre-trial detention. This meant that we had to spend all of Tuesday sitting around the court waiting to get the letter from a judge. While we were waiting, Caroline and I interviewed several judges, clerks, and prosecutors. Unlike the US, where most people involved in the legal system (prosecutors, defense lawyers, clerks, judges) go to law school, in Cambodia, prosecutors and judges go to a separate two-year school to study. They study together at first, and then decide what they will specialize in, and at that point, they separate. Using the word “lawyer” in Cambodia indicates to the listener that the person of whom you are speaking in anyone but a prosecutor or judge. Because of this system, prosecutors and judges are very close; they seem to consider each other two sides of the same coin. I have been out to dinner several times with judges and prosecutors, and they are all very friendly with each other, both in and out of the court.
In addition to sharing schooling, judges and prosecutors both work out of the courthouse, at least in the courts that I have visited. They are assigned to a court, with no say in the matter, for 4-year periods. This means that they are far from their families and friends, and bond with each other. One prosecutor that I met told me that they are paid so little that they do not have money to rent houses or apartments, and they live in their offices. This may also be one of the reasons for the rampant corruption.
In any case, we got the letter giving Vandeth permission to meet with the client, so the next day we went to the detention center. I expected to see downtrodden prisoners, signs of torture, starvation, and misery. Instead, I saw a volleyball court and prisoners chatting with each other and the guards. While I am sure that this is not necessary typical, it was surprising to me. Someone told me, before I came to Cambodia, that it is really the police who cause many of the human rights violations in prisons, not the prison administration. Obviously I have not seen every prison in Cambodia, but this certainly seemed to be the case at the prison in Kampot (although I should add the disclaimer that I did not see the police committing any human rights violations, either).
There have been plenty other adventures as well, but this is probably long enough for now. Hopefully I will have more to report next time!