Empowering the Disenfranchised

Text and photos by Dene-Hern Chen

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia – The dusty, smog-filled outskirts of Phnom Penh may seem like an unlikely location for the Community Legal Education Center (CLEC), but it was chosen for a reason. Just 5 km away from the city’s notorious Prey Sar Prison, it is easier for CLEC’s lawyers to promptly assist human rights defenders in need of pro bono legal aid.

“Whenever we hear of summons from the police, our lawyers have the ability to be accessible at the scene from the very first minute of their arrest,” Yeng Virak, CLEC’s executive director, said. “So that helps to lessen their vulnerability of forced confession or abuse.”

Legal intervention is especially necessary in a country like Cambodia where allegations of abuse by the government is rampant. Since 2000, more than half a million people – in a country of 15 million — have been affected by state-sanctioned land grabs.

Police have in the past wielded brute force to counter peaceful demonstrations over the issue, often escalating tensions. Activists intervening in land conflicts, as well as other politically charged disputes, can find themselves caught in unfavorable situations.

Last November, 11 anti-eviction activists – who have been protesting for years over the removal of hundreds of residents from central Phnom Penh – were arrested and charged after a demonstration.

According to Virak, the arrest and criminalisation of people exercising their rights is becoming the rule, not the exception.

“We’ve observed the trend that the advocates increasingly face criminal charges in land-related and labour-related cases,” he said. “Many human rights defenders face criminal charges and they need lawyers, and not traditional lawyers.”

Conceived in 1996 as a field office for the University of San Francisco School of Law, CLEC began by providing legal education to local communities, but by 2003 had started expanding their activities to advocating on issues of land rights, labour violations, and on election reform.

Today, its staff provides legal representation to high-profile cases concerning human rights abuses, and it also avails itself to disenfranchised groups – like embattled garment workers and migrant labourers – who want to press charges against their abusers.

When three garment workers were shot and seriously injured by a provincial governor during a demonstration in 2012, lawyers from CLEC and Licadho – another local rights group – took up the case despite push-back from the government on the investigation.

Virak said that in addition to representing individuals, his organisation also wants to instill a sense of “legal empowerment” in their clients.

“This means that we focus on building the capacity of our clients,” he said. “Their ability to articulate and to argue the law should be strong, and the leadership and advocacy skills of our clients should also be helpful [to their communities].”

Citing a “double standard,” Virak said that the rich and powerful in Cambodia often benefit from the law.

“Meanwhile, the poor and vulnerable lose, and not only that, they become a victim of abuse,” he said. “The court system silences these people.”

Problems from the law don’t just stem from local authorities. Thousands of Cambodians leave the country each year in search of jobs and higher wages, and many find themselves in unfavourable situations. Since 2012, CLEC has repatriated more than 10,000 migrant workers who faced abusive conditions abroad, but the Cambodian government – as well as foreign governments receiving the workers – has done little to investigate, and bring perpetrators to justice.

At the most shocking end of the spectrum is the sale of Cambodian women as brides to men in China after they were promised high-paying jobs. Rights groups repatriated nearly 50 women last year. Women working as maids in Malaysia and Singapore have also faced horrific conditions, with no protection from recruitment agencies or legal recourse from foreign governments. Men who registered to work on fishing trawlers around the region found themselves in countries like Senegal and South Africa, labouring under abusive situations and given little to eat.

Moeun Tola, the head of CLEC’s labour program – which covers the labour and migrant issues – said his organisation is constantly advocating for better working conditions, both inside and outside Cambodia’s borders. Despite the odds stacked against them, he is hopeful that change will come because the people will demand it – at least through their votes in the next national election in 2018.

The previous national poll resulted in a massive loss of parliamentary seats for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party. Though the CPP still took home the overall election, the overwhelming loss gave the government a glimpse at the people’s disenchantment.

“As long as the government keeps violating human rights and having poor public services delivery, they will lose the people’s support,” Tola said.

“Now, multiple groups are standing up for their rights,” he said. “The monks are standing up for their rights. The land community, the workers, the farmers are all standing up now.”

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