William and Mary Law School

A Conversation with Alison Rabe ('13), Boren Fellow in Cambodia

What drew you to Cambodia in the first place?

That seems to be everyone’s first question. It is strange; how did a woman from rural Idaho end up in rural Cambodia? I first fell in love with this country during my undergraduate study at The College of Idaho. I randomly took a course on Southeast Asia, and I became so interested in the region that I signed up for a study abroad course titled “Buddhism, Authority, and Development.” For the course, I backpacked around Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos with two professors and six other students. We met and worked with government officials, non-profit organizations, and activist citizens, and each of us completed unique projects based on our research. Out of all of the places we visited, Cambodia was definitely my favorite.

What made Cambodia your favorite of those places?

A former U.S. diplomat to Cambodia once said, “Cambodia will steal your heart, and then she will break it.” This seemed to happen to me during my study abroad trip. Cambodia stole my heart with its people, who remain generous, hard-working, and optimistic, despite their frustrating circumstances.

At the same time, Cambodia broke my heart with its tragic recent history. Only thirty years ago, the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime killed one-third of the population, leaving the country in a completely chaotic state. The repercussions of the genocide are still present as Cambodia struggles to start over.

Still, this place gives me hope. The development from “Year Zero” [referring to the Khmer Rouge takeover in 1975] to today is amazing. The country is full of economic potential, NGO activism, cultural revival, entrepreneurship, and developing human rights issues and reform. It’s a fascinating, inspiring, challenging, and exciting place to live.

Alison Rabe in Cambodia Alison Rabe in Cambodia Alison Rabe in Cambodia

How did you become interested in the Boren Fellowship?

When I was applying for summer jobs during my 1L year, Professor Christie Warren interviewed me for a few internships in Cambodia doing criminal defense work (something I hope to do more of in the future). Through Professor Warren, I received an internship with International Bridges for Justice (IBJ) in rural Northeastern Cambodia and grant money through her Program of Comparative Studies and Peacebuilding.

During my internship with IBJ I began to learn about Cambodia's land problems and wanted to know more. I was able to do some research on the topic during my internship, but I left the country with countless questions and wanted to go back (again). I worked hard on my application to the Boren Fellowship during my 2L year and was accepted into the program.

What is the most important thing you wish Westerners knew about Cambodia?

It’s an impossible wish, but I wish we Westerners could truly understand the poverty that exists here: if you get sick, you cannot afford medicine. If you are hungry, you cannot afford food. If you want to go to school, you cannot afford to pay the teacher. If someone takes your farmland, you cannot afford the bribe to kick them out. It’s not that I want more people to experience these horrible things, but I wish more people could fathom what it’s like. If we truly understood poverty, I think money would be spread through the world a lot differently.

Alison Rabe in Cambodia Alison Rabe in Cambodia Alison Rabe in Cambodia

Was it difficult to adjust to life in Cambodia?  What was your greatest “culture shock”?

Everything here is so different, so it is difficult to choose just one thing. One thing I am always getting used to in the rural areas is the feeling that I am always outside. Buildings are not equipped with regular windows or air-conditioning and are very open-air. This leads to a lot of other unfortunate things as well, like rats, giant bugs, and lizards in my house and office. When I came home from work the other day, I actually found a new litter of kittens in my roommate’s closet.

What sort of cases did you encounter while working with IBJ on criminal defense?

Many cases were similar to those I worked on in America: drug trafficking, theft, murder, money laundering. The cases were more unique in that they often included a component of judicial or police abuse, misconduct, or corruption. Some clients were wrongly accused, arrested on little to no evidence. Worse, most clients were waiting for months or years in pre-trial detention with no trial date set—over 30 percent of people in Cambodian prisons are pre-trial. It was encouraging to witness the many successes of the lawyer I worked with, but it is overwhelming to think of the thousands of prisoners throughout this country still awaiting trial.

You had a second internship in Cambodia working for the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime.  What types of issues did you deal with while working there?

I acted as the point person in the Cambodia office for UNODC’s Anti-Corruption Project with the Cambodian Government’s Anti-Corruption Unit (ACU). UNODC is providing technical assistance to the ACU during their implementation of the UN Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC). The government signed the UNCAC five years ago, and now they have to go through a checklist to demonstrate their implementation of the provisions, both de facto and de jure. I helped develop our concept note and detailed budgeted work plan for the two-year project, trained the National Project Officer, attended meetings with the government, prepared briefs and documents for the government and donors, and organized a legal anti-corruption library. I also helped our office hold a Judicial Integrity workshop with Khmer judges and prosecutors and wrote a follow-up report to submit to the Cambodian Ministry of Justice.

Alison Rabe in Cambodia Alison Rabe in Cambodia Alison Rabe in Cambodia

What type of work will you be doing during your year as a Boren Fellow?

I am researching and working on land issues. Land is the most pressing human rights issue in Cambodia. Land is illegally sold, people are displaced and stripped of their livelihoods, and there is little recourse for the obvious injustice. All laws were destroyed during the Khmer Rouge genocide. When the regime fell in 1979, survivors resettled without legal mechanisms to protect their ownership of land. All Cambodian citizens became “squatters,” a status that many retain. In 2001, the government passed a law to create clearer legal mechanisms for land use and exclusion. The law included a new policy of economic land concessions (ELCs), which allows the government to sell state private land to investors or developers.

Unfortunately, ELCs have resulted in extensive abuse and corruption due to legal gaps, misinformation, and lack of rule of law. The government sells land to investors, land that has belonged to “squatter” Cambodian citizens for decades. The people have no legal recourse at the police station or the court because a company can pay a bigger bribe, so people are kicked off their own land. Meanwhile, the law continues to become more complicated with the passing of new governmental policies, and lack of education about the law perpetuates. Companies and government officials continue to make deals. Already, hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced without adequate compensation.

I work with a few NGOs on land issues in Ratanikiri Province. We try to spread information and awareness about the laws to prevent future land disputes, and resolve current disputes in villages by helping them obtain land titles or litigate against companies.

What do you most hope to accomplish during your year there?

I will continue to provide technical and legal assistance to NGOs and villages, helping them prevent or remedy land conflicts. Through researching several case studies, I will assess the land law and main issues, successes and challenges of the Cambodian government’s land policy, implementation gaps, necessary reforms, and ways that the government, NGOs, and development partners can work together to solve these issues in the future.

Hopefully, I will also become fluent in Khmer along the way, as an important component of the Boren fellowship is language study.

Alison Rabe in Cambodia Alison Rabe in Cambodia Alison Rabe in Cambodia

What do you like about learning Khmer?

It is incredibly rewarding when I am able to put in the time to study hard, and then I am able to speak with people who I could not communicate with before. My experiences have shown that it means so much more to Khmer people when I speak with them in their own language; I am able to connect with them on a deeper level. The Khmer language is beautifully descriptive, smooth, and harsh at the same time. It is not a tonal language, but unfortunately, there are 74 letters in the alphabet.

Do you plan on returning to Cambodia in the future?

Of course I would like to come back and work here, but we’ll see where my career takes me. The Boren Fellowship requires that I work for the U.S. Federal Government for at least one year, so first, to fulfill my service requirement, I will apply to work for the U.S. Department of State, CIA, Department of Defense, or Department of Homeland Security.


You can continue following Alison's work in Cambodia on her blog, http://alicambo.wordpress.com/

Alison Rabe in the Ratanikiri countryside