Conflict in rural communities can be costly in many ways. Resolving conflicts through
the court system can be expensive and time-consuming, the judgment can create rifts
within communities, and the whole process is often marred by corrupt officials.
A pilot project run by the NGO Buddhism for Development (BFD) is investigating a
different way of dealing with conflict in rural areas. Where possible, disputes are
being worked out at a local level with the help of volunteers from within the community.
"Our aim is to bring elders who are supported and trusted by the people in their
commune to play a role for conciliation at the commune level, and to reduce violent
behavior that could occur from the simple quarrel," said Nob Boran, BFD project
BFD is currently testing the system in the four provinces of Banteay Meanchey, Battambang,
Oddar Meanchey and Kampong Thom. Of the 1,621 commune councils across the country,
55 are involved in BFD's pilot project. Each commune council elects five people from
the community to act as the local conflict resolution committee. Committees can include
commune council members, laymen, monks, village chiefs, and respected old men and
women from within the community. The key criteria is that the mediators are trusted
by their community.
Boran says there are many problems that commonly occur: divorce, complaints about
properties and inheritance, use of wells, debt, land and land boundary disputes,
crop damage caused by animals, verbal quarrels between neighbors, housing and land
entrance disputes, domestic violence, and trees growing over land boundaries.
These simple problems can lead to unnecessary court cases, says Heng Thary, a volunteer
from Achaleak commune in Kampong Thom province. "We found that some simple disputes
were turning into serious cases resulting in complaints to the court, which is the
way to make people poorer, and waiting for a hearing is a waste of time," said
The Kampong Thom project is the most recent addition to the BFD initiative. BFD was
granted $5,000 under the World Bank's Small Grants Program (May 2004 to May 2005)
to set up conflict resolution committees in 11 communes within Kampong Thom's Stung
Nine months on, the Kampong Thom project is well on the way to helping communities
deal with their own problems. Thary says people in her commune have begun to realize
court cases can be very expensive. Now, they prefer to solve disputes through local
conciliation rather than by complaining to the provincial court.
She says a further benefit of the project is that both complainants end up being
satisfied with the result, whereas a court case creates a winner and a loser. "I
think that a court decision creates an idea of right and wrong, therefore after the
court case, a culture of hating each other in the same village or commune is created
- this causes a loss of unity in Khmer society."
The cost of litigation can also have a ruinous effect on communities. "I see
our people lose their houses, their land and their property while they try to win
cases in the courts, "said Touch Than, a volunteer from the Damrei Chonkla commune
committee in Kampong Thom. "Our work saves them a lot of time and money."
Heng Thary estimates about 60 percent of disputes in her commune now get solved through
local conciliation and that involved parties believe the judgments are fair.
The Stung Sen district committees acknowledge their capacity is limited in legal
terms - they cannot mediate criminal cases, only simple disputes. However, with early
intervention, minor conflicts can be prevented from becoming violent and turning
into criminal cases.
Preventing criminal cases is an important part of the BFD project. Many people are
detained illegally by police while awaiting trial, says Ham Sunrith, prison monitoring
officer for human rights NGO Licadho. As of December 2004, at least 125 people were
detained in excess of the legal pretrial detention period of six months, according
to Licadho's monitoring of 18 out of Cambodia's 26 prisons.
Sunrith says there are many problems with the system. "It's not only the person
who implements the law, the whole system is weak. They don't have enough budget to
run the legal system in our country," said Sunrith. Knowledge of the legal process
is limited in rural areas, so people don't know their legal entitlements. He says
there is often a delay in delivering summons due to lack of communication between
the court and witnesses. Many times, money is extracted from those trying to speed
up the process. "The culture of corruption exists, if you give something to
the court, your case would be prioritized," said Sunrith.
Sunrith thinks the BFD project is a good idea, but is concerned there will not be
enough people to act as mediators. "It's the best option for the society to
have conciliation resolution, but the question is, do we have the human resources
to do this?"
The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) conducted a survey on alternative dispute
settlement that will be submitted to the government in June to help with judicial
reform policies. Kong Rady, a legal and judicial reform consultant at UNDP, says
their aim is to improve access to justice for all Cambodian people. "We want
the government or the Council for Legal and Judicial Reform to realize about the
real situation of conciliation at the local level, and to establish the mechanism
for dispute settlement that would function smoothly and not break the law,"
BFD director Heng Mony-chenda says if the project continues to prove successful,
it will be submitted to the government for consideration as a national policy.