Gangsters became the focus of anti-crime campaigns undertaken by Cambodia’s police in the past year. Although “gangster” is the new buzzword, criminal activity is an old story in a country where rampant street-level crimes can be seen as a microcosm of the lack of law enforcement on all levels of society.
While the government has been ramping up efforts to catch criminals in the act, legal experts say that their time might be better spent in educating people before they decide to engage in criminal activities. In an interview with The Phnom Penh Post earlier this month, Chan Soveth, a senior investigator for the rights group Adhoc, said that “local authorities should use their power to give them better educations, employment opportunities and professional training so they can become good citizens”.
While many of the “gangsters” who have been caught by police are probably well aware of the illegality of their actions, civil society groups that focus on legal issues are not only working to educate people on how to avoid breaking the law, they are teaching people to defend themselves if they are charged with a crime and recognise when a crime is being committed against them.
For some students at the country’s law schools, it might seem like the legal system is easily accessible. “You can get the knowledge everywhere. It just depends on whether you want to obtain it or not,” said Run Vanya, a 21-year-old law student who said that listening to legal awareness programmes on the radio inspired her passion to study law.
However, some of Run Vanya’s classmates realise that their access to the internet and libraries is the exception rather than the rule in Cambodia, and said that information about the legal code is difficult for your average Cambodian to find and understand.
“Law documents on the internet are not accessible and law libraries are set up only in law schools,” explained Theng Tith Maria, who was one of Cambodia’s representatives in the Philip C Jessup International Mock Trial Competition. Even if people are interested in law, “they don’t know where to get law books from and the price can be unreasonable”.
While laws in a democracy are meant to protect everyone in society, even some of Kingdom’s university students, who are presumably more knowledgeable than your average Cambodian, said they are somewhat clueless when it comes to the law. “We learn only our majors and we think that law is something very far from us”, says Ty Pichcharanai, a business student at Pannasastra University of Cambodia’s (PUC) Battambang branch.
Whether they care to learn about it, the law is something that inevitably impacts everyone in the country. Besides preventing themselves from violating the law or being violated by others, university students have the unique opportunity to bring their knowledge back to their communities were legal knowledge is severely lacking.
“What if one day a strange guy come to you with an officer’s badge and says you will be fined US$1,000 if you stay [in your house] longer because it is being taken back by the person who owned the house before the Pol Pot regime,” asked Theng Tith Maria. “You should at least know your right on your property possession.”
In order to prevent ignorance in such situations, there are a number of institutions that work to distribute legal information over the radio and through free booklets. The Japanese International Cooperation Agency, the Cambodian Defenders Project (CDP) and the Community Legal Education Centre (CLEC) focus on educating Cambodians about the law.
The CDP has held over 10,000 workshops in the country to encourage greater understanding of the law among NGOs, government officials, police, lawyers and students, according to their website. CLEC has implemented the Access to Justice programme, which works with community and village leaders to provide Cambodians, particularly the 80 percent who live outside of provincial centres where courts are located, with greater information and legal resources.
Radio stations such as Voice of America, FM 102 and FM 105 have several programmes that facilitate discussions around the law and related problems.
These provide complicated legal information in a way that anyone can understand in order to prevent frustration among people like Chong Pitou, a senior engineering student who said: “I have tried to read law, but I get so little meaning out of it. Why do lawmakers make this so hard!”
Since primary and secondary schools provide only a rudimentary understanding of law, the ability for Cambodia’s legal experts – many of whom are still in university – to increase the knowledge and access of their more vulnerable countrymen will be key to the development of a judicial system that looks out for everyone in the country.
Additional reporting by Tep Nimol and Chrann Chamroeun