Sunrith Ham, Deputy Director of Monitoring & Protection at LICADHO: Representing human rights defenders in Cambodia

By Siena Anstis

Sunrith works with a number of human rights victims in Cambodia including the Dey Krahorm community (above). Members of the community were evicted from their land in 2009 for ‘development purposes’ and moved to a relocation site. Their former land remains vacant.

At first face, working as a lawyer in Cambodia seems like a disheartening experience. Corruption is endemic: the rich and powerful bribe judges to have cases found in their favor and use criminal sentencing to deter resistance from members of the community. The police, acting under the instruction of the government, often comply in the harassment and arrest of human rights activists.

Someone recently asked me why anyone would continue working within such a broken legal system. I think Sunrith’s story is a good example of how coping with difficult circumstances in the hope of helping suffering individuals starts with a personal decision – one intimately connected to culture and religion. In the end, perhaps change makers are not inspired by a single defining event, but rather an uphill struggle led by instinct.

Sunrith graduated with a legal diploma from a Phnom Penh university in 1997 at the age of 22. The government appointed him as a law clerk in his hometown. As a government employee, he was making $20 USD a month. His first experience with the evolving Cambodian legal system was not a positive one. He recounts how a woman’s child was arrested and arraigned in front of the judges. The mother offered them a bundle of money carefully tied with a rope made from banana leaves. The money had clearly been saved up – diligently, meticulously, through hardwork. She bought her child’s freedom; the judges did not complain.

Religion and culture can deeply influence a person. In Cambodian culture, and particularly in Buddhist families, youth are taught to obey their superiors. But, Sunrith was different. He felt he had received two messages: to listen to people older than him; but also to question decisions like those made by the judges at the provincial court. He says his religion, Buddhism, also helped him make the difficult decision to leave his clerking position: “I didn’t feel like I was doing a good thing. I felt that if I was not making people feel better, I was not taking the right route.”

His parents were surprised by his decision. As a class-conscious family in a class-conscious society, they were delighted that their son had found work with the government. Despite this family pressure, he left this position to permanently move to Phnom Penh, the country’s growing capital, some 160 km away.

Sunrith’s first job was as a typist. At first, he was content. He was financially independent as the new job paid more than the government. However, after a few months, he began questioning his decision: should someone with a diploma in law work as a typist? Could he push himself to do more?

Soon he decided to leave his relatively comfortable position as a typist and began volunteering and then interning with LICADHO. He spent the first five years working with the Prison Office. Cambodian prisons, notorious for their horrific living conditions, became a second home to him. While others would express fear or disgust towards prisoners, Sunrith was happy to talk with them, bringing them bananas to help the day past faster. Seeing people energized and rewarded by his presence clearly made him happy.

Eventually, Sunrith transferred to LICADHO’s Human Rights Monitoring Office and this helped him make the decision to become a practicing lawyer. “You see injustice from case to case, but as an observer [a human rights monitor who tracks human rights abuses] you cannot express yourself, you are not in the system.”

Sunrith says that some days he is exhausted and considers leaving the legal profession. Yet, his friends and colleagues convince him that if he stops working, human rights defenders will have a difficult time finding a trusted lawyer to represent them free of charge. Around LICADHO, Sunrith has the reputation of a formidable lawyer: someone with a chilling confidence in front of the Cambodian Supreme Court, the country’s highest judicial body.

While he acknowledges that changing old societal practices would be difficult, he does believe that he can help change the attitude within the courts in Cambodia. To fight corruption and injustice, Sunrith hopes that the next generation will not be taught to accept the orders of their superiors, but rather to question authority. He says that future legal professionals should not concentrate on whether or not there is law, but rather on implementing the existing law and abiding by the rules set out within.

Working with LICADHO, Sunrith, who has been in the thick of human rights activities in Cambodia since the late 90’s, does note some positive changes. He says that the number of political killings has decreased substantially. Rather, the government is now using the courts to dissuade people from challenging them. The fact that the government’s weapon is no longer primarily the gun, but rather the law, is seen as a step – although a twisted one – forward.

Watching community activism in action also seems to give Sunrith renewed hope. He speaks admiringly of the communities living around Prey Lang forest who came all the way to Phnom Penh a few weeks ago to protest the destruction of their forest. He advises the residents of Boeung Kak lake, another community being evicted from their land, to believe in their struggle. “How can you change injustice? How can you change the attitude of the government? Hope comes day to day, from the people. It does not come from institutions or the policymakers.” He says that while Boeung Kak lake residents may lose their homes, in the end, they have set a fighting precedent that will hopefully grow and overcome the “cancer”of corruption and exploitation ailing the country.

2 responses to “Sunrith Ham, Deputy Director of Monitoring & Protection at LICADHO: Representing human rights defenders in Cambodia”

  1. nellymarcoux says:

    Siena, thank you for an inspiring story and such a beautiful and striking picture.

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