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Cambodia 25 years after the Khmer Rouge

Andrew Wood [University of Pittsburgh School of Law 2L, in Cambodia]: "With the Khmer Rouge tribunal beginning in less than a year, Phnom Penh is buzzing in anticipation of the proceedings. Preparation for the tribunal has been nearly a decade in the making. Although Pol Pot died in 1999, several other former Khmer Rouge leaders are expected to be indicted and held responsible for the deaths of over 1.5 million people during the Khmer Rouge rule over Democratic Kampuchea from 1975 to 1979. One cannot help but feel the sense of urgency when reading the daily updates in the local papers. With the recent deaths of KR leaders Thiounn Thiouenn and Ta Mok, and the uncertain condition of former KR foreign secretary Ieng Sary who was hospitalized last month, people in Cambodia are anxious to see the trials get underway.

Considering current events in Cambodia, it seemed only appropriate to visit the Tuol Sleng prison (S-21) and the killing fields of Choeung Ek upon arrival to Phnom Penh. Nearly 20,000 men, women and children were tortured and killed at S-21 between 1975 and 1978, and the Khmer Rouge kept detailed records of the atrocities, including photos of all that were held at the prison. After being tortured, the victims of S-21 were transferred to the Cheung Ek extermination camp where they were killed and buried in mass graves. The Document Center for Cambodia (DC-Cam), established in 1995, is largely responsible for pouring through the documents left behind at Tuol Sleng, mapping mass grave sites, and preserving evidence against the Khmer Rouge.

Though the Khmer Rouge were ousted by the Vietnamese over 25 years ago, the regime's impact continues to affect the people and the development of Cambodia. By eliminating nearly all of Cambodia's educated population — doctors, lawyers, professors, even those who merely wore glasses — the Khmer Rouge virtually succeeded in creating their desired "year zero." Today, Cambodia is riddled with corruption as it tries to pick up the pieces. A striking statistic I have encountered as a legal intern is that there are currently only about 300 practicing lawyers in the entire country.

During my first week in Phnom Penh I witnessed the controversial eviction of hundreds of families from a Phnom Penh community, marched to a prison in support of 3 men who were arrested during a separate eviction, and attended a rally held by local NGOs and villagers of the latter community, a centrally located village in Phnom Penh. Evictions of Phnom Penh communities are on the rise, and while the eminent domain laws of the US are relatively similar to the laws of Cambodia, the treatment of Cambodian evictees in practice is strikingly different. People are not generally compensated at all, or at best not adequately, and are relocated to empty plots of land 20 to 30 kilometers outside the city-center. The relocation sites resemble a refugee camp more than a community, with little or no housing, running water and toilets.

Cambodia's Community Legal Education Center (CLEC) is currently working to support the victims of such land disputes, as well as to support workers rights regarding labor issues. I am working with CLEC's labor department. Cambodia's current labor law, created in 1997, is regarded as an excellent piece of legislation on paper. In practice, however, workers face many challenges. Although the labor law states that the Ministry of Labor shall set the minimum wage, only the garment sector has thus far achieved a minimum wage in Cambodia ($45 USD per month). Trade union leaders are the victims of violence by gangsters hired by employers and corruption in their struggle for basic rights. The rise of the relatively young Cambodian garment industry provides a hope for many that increased international business can help improve the lives of many in an impoverished nation. For me, working with leaders who are fighting to achieve this goal should prove to make for a very exciting month."

Opinions expressed in JURIST Commentary are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of JURIST's editors, staff, donors or the University of Pittsburgh.

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