A UN report has found that the powers of village chiefs to solve local disputes have
been diminished by decades of war and upheaval.
Although the causes of local conflicts have remained the same for decades - land
issues, domestic quarrels and arguments with neighbors - people now have less fear
and respect for local leaders, which means the decisions they hand down are more
likely to be ignored.
"The power and respect associated with fear that used to be granted to the village
chief are gradually fading," states the report from the UN Educational, Scientific
and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). "Indeed, the village chief has less ways
of putting pressure on the population."
Anthropologist Fabienne Luco, who wrote the report, Between a tiger and a crocodile,
said the number of disputes was increasing, and in particular those related to land.
What had not changed, though, was the traditional method of saving face by using
conciliation, rather than 'right-wrong' decisions.
Luco said one effect was that in domestic violence cases, some women were unable
to get divorced because the traditional method promoted conciliation, which forced
them to stay in abusive situations. That was compounded in rural areas by mistrust
of the courts, which have the power to divorce couples.
"So what happens is some women continue to be beaten," she said. "The
commune chief can make [the man] sign a letter promising not to do it again, but
[the chief] cannot judge, because this is conciliation.
"Many times there are problems that should be solved in the courts - like domestic
violence or a women wanting a divorce - but commune and village chiefs try to stop
the women from going to court because it is a question of [them] losing face,"
Luco said. "A good chief is one who says, 'There is no problem in my area'."
Sandy Feinzig, a consultant at the Cambodian Women's Crisis Center, agreed that village
chiefs tried to prevent women seeking divorces in the courts for that reason, and
said women were intimidated by courts.
"Particularly in rural areas there is no other recourse but local methods -
either going to village chiefs or monks or an elder," Feinzig said. "In
the city there is also reluctance to go to court because the process is very slow,
very tedious, there is a high level of corruption, and lack of implementation of
UNESCO's report found that in the 'traditional' period before 1970, people respected
village leaders and elders, and heeded their advice.
Religious principles and folk wisdom also prevented conflict, and people were expected
to remain silent if they had problems so as to not disturb the social order.
"Scattered family units live in dread of upsetting the supernatural forces that
protect the established order and in constant worry of being bothered by the local
government representatives," the report noted of that period.
However after the upheavals of the Lon Nol and Khmer Rouge regimes, high levels of
mistrust made returning to the traditional system much more difficult.
"There was still fear of the authorities, and if you didn't have good connections
with authorities you kept [problems] inside," said Luco.
Over the past ten years, the concepts of human rights and democracy have spread,
which combined with economic development and the end of war, meant local leaders
have less power to intervene using traditional methods of mediation.
Luco said the combination of factors had led to an inconsistent approach by village
chiefs, who needed training so that people would again trust their decisions. That
was one recomendation of the report.
"Usually poorly educated, the conciliators are little equipped to carry out
their task, and often remain powerless when confronted to new situations, particularly
in the case of land-related disputes," it stated.
The report recommends that the government and NGOs provide training on law, conciliation
and arbitration techniques for village and commune chiefs, police and masters of
ceremonies. It was issued to NGOs and human rights groups following International
Human Rights Day on December 10.