Traditional justice systems in Cambodia?

Siena AnstisI am considering focusing my McGill-related work while in Cambodia on traditional justice systems in the country, but I have mostly come up against dead-ends in terms of research. My interest in traditional justice is based on research on the gacaca and mato oput systems in Rwanda and Uganda. Is there something similar in Cambodia? If such a structure exists, is there any relationship between the Khmer Rouge atrocities and a traditional justice system? For example, have communities considered using whatever systems might exist now to provide ‘justice’ for victims or is the ECCC the main or only focus? If not, why not?

Fortunately, I spent a couple of hours today with a Cambodian translator (who will remain anonymous) who has a fairly extensive understanding of NGOs working on legal issues in the region, as well as local community conflict resolution systems. It seems that there is a traditional justice system among the indigenous ethnic minority in Cambodia. These communities prefer using the system they have in place because they are not familiar with the local courts. Not being literate, they are also vulnerable to what the court dictates without being aware of the proper procedures. Moreover, with the courts being so corrupt, they cannot meet the costs of winning a case. The translator describes the courts as not belonging to the people, but rather solely to the rich, i.e. those able to pay off the judges. He does not consider the 2010 Anti Corruption Law to have improved the situation.

With that said, it looks like one organization is starting a mediation program for small-scale, local conflicts in Cambodia. It looks like this will probably circulate around family issues and gender-based violence. I have not yet had a chance to follow-up this source, but I will start looking into this angle in the coming weeks. You can also check out this report from the UNDP “A case study of indigenous traditional legal systems and conflict resolution in Cambodia.”

Also, coming back to corruption in Cambodia: from what the translator discussed, it is clear the issue is similar in its core to corruption in Kenya. Police and civil servants are paid a pittance and being paid-off becomes a necessary bonus on their salary if they are to survive. In his community, the translator said he did occasionally offer what he called donations to the police. These donations were announced publicly in front of several policemen to ensure the resources were split between several members. This contribution, he said, is meant to ensure that they can get fuel in their cars and actually patrol the neighbourhoods and respond to calls. From this angle, corruption morphs more into something like a ‘tax,’ without the government being directly involved. I remember a similar narrative in Nairobi: a taxi driver telling me that “chai” or a small pay-off was literally for the policewoman’s cup of evening tea as she sat in a miserable lean-to next to the highway leading to the airport.

If you have any suggestions on where to find more information on traditional justice systems in Cambodia, please contact me at siena.anstis(@)

(Cross posted from here).

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