Ieng Vuth, right, presents an ax to a Sala Krau villager, while Y Chhien,
center, thrusts money into his hand
Court of Pailin, Kingdom of Cambodia reads the sign on the front of the low, curved
building that huddles on a street corner in the middle of this former Khmer Rouge
stronghold. Inside, a half dozen wooden desks, a filing cabinet and a single typewriter
make up the inventory of the damp, dark room.
This provisional Pailin court is in quasi-limbo - and has been for several months
now. The 23 employees of the town's judicial office are eager to get the court up
and running at full speed, but one major problem remains: The question of which judges
shall preside over the court and who shall appoint them.
Much like the way the Cambodian government has argued for months with the UN over
who should hold the majority of judges at a future tribunal against former KR leaders,
Pailin and Phnom Penh cannot agree on who will distribute justice in the Pailin municipal
court. Pailin wants Pailin people on the panel, Phnom Penh wants outsiders.
So up until now, the Pailin court is restricted to handling minor disputes that are
solved through a mediation procedure, slightly resembling a real trial with prosecution,
defense and formal rulings.
The court deals with on average one case a week, ranging from divorces to neighbor
fights and land disputes. A number of prominent civil servants are authorized to
act as attorneys or judges in the court.
If this sounds like makeshift jungle justice, think again. Every one of those acting
as law officers in the court has been through a thorough seminar on due process and
the rule of law. Some have even received a small amount of legal training.
At the rule-of-law workshop, conducted by an independent Phnom Penh NGO, the Khmer
Institute for Democracy (KID), high-level officials were put through detailed role
playing, acting out every little part of a legal procedure - investigation, trial
and imprisonment - with themselves cast as arresting officers, attorneys and judges.
And according to KID Director Dr Lao Mong Hay, the workshop was quite a success in
giving the former Khmer Rouge guerrillas a deeper understanding of how a proper judiciary
functions. Mong Hay says the training was met with sincere interest - so much so
that the Pailin municipality asked KID to come back and conduct a second seminar
for lower level officials.
But the workshops on the rule of law are not the only efforts to introduce human
rights and other aspects of a well-functioning democracy to the former KR guerrillas
in Pailin - best known for their propensity for summary executions and heavy-handed
oppression. The Cambodian Institute of Human Rights under Kassie Neou has also long
been active in Pailin, teaching human rights and good governance to citizens of all
"The people in Pailin are very eager to learn about democratic values and they
are very serious about it, too," says Kassie. I believe the training we give
is really working. It helps them forget their old style of governing."
Among the four top officials in Pailin, only Third Deputy Governor Keo Horn is an
outsider who was never part of the KR. Governor Y Chhien, First Deputy Governor Ieng
Vuth and Second Deputy Governor Koeut Sothear all held high rank in the KR fighting
force before Pailin defected in 1996.
Pailin Governor Y Chhien addresses the crowd in Pailin's Sala Krau district, flanked by (from left) Hing Bun Hieng, chief of Hun Sen's bodyguard unit, First Deputy Governor Ieng Vuth and Third Deputy Governor Keo Horn
Sothear, for instance, was commander-in-chief in the supply division with many years
of fighting behind him. Now, he's the highest-ranking former KR official to complete
a one-year training course in administration and good governance.
"I learned many useful things at the course. After I came back, I have been
trying to reform the public administration. But I only finished my training three
months ago and I'm only one person, so things have not really started moving yet,"
On the other hand, he does believe that the development of human rights and democracy
will have no problem gathering momentum in Pailin. The town leaders are interested,
so the citizens will share their dedication.
"People in Pailin respect their leaders. They will always follow them,"
However, according to Pailin's chief of cabinet, Mei Meakk, there is one more reason
why even the rank and file of former KR have taken a liking to human rights and the
rule of law. A former general and secretary to Pol Pot, Meakk may well be Pailin's
most dedicated spokesperson for democratic values.
"We lived under the KR rule for more than 20 years. It was a bitter life without
rights or freedom. We obeyed the laws of only one man - Pol Pot. Now, people are
thirsty for their rights and freedom and the laws of the people," says Meakk.
"But one must not expect too much, too quickly. It took the USA 200 years to
On one human rights issue, Pailin may be one step ahead of the rest of the country:
women's rights. At the town's Department for Women's Affairs, deputy Khun Chanthy
explains why former KR women are blessed with more self-confidence and awareness
than their non-KR sisters.
"During the Pol Pot regime, I was in charge of the printing shop at the foreign
office. At least 30 other women held positions at the department. Back then it didn't
matter if you were a man or a woman. It only mattered if you were competent. It was
normal that a woman held a good position. And all the men had to respect a competent
woman," says Chanthy.
This principle of equality, Chan-thy believes, has helped the Pailin office in its
work to promote wo-men's rights. She claims they have already seen a drastic decrease
in domestic violence and are now working on improving the women's professional capabilities,
teaching them sewing, hair dressing, pig farming and basic literacy.
So, strange as it may seem to some, the former KR guerrillas in Pailin seem bent
on embracing human rights, democracy and the rule of law. But Mong Hay says it may
not be so strange after all.
"Their first experiences with training in democratic values revealed a lot of
shortcomings to them. They found out that they lag behind the rest of the country,
which created something like an inferiority complex. But these are senior army officials,
so they are eager to catch up with and be equal to the rest of the country,"
says Mong Hay.
"Also, there is of course the question of image. They want people to forget
about the KR and not associate them with the past anymore."
Kassie agrees with Mong Hay's assessment of the former KR's dedication to democracy
and human rights, although it was a delicate process to introduce the importance
of these concepts to the Pailin leadership.
"Human rights start with human relations, and in the beginning there was not
much trust. The former KR have every reason to be paranoid, what with all the talk
about a tribunal. Also, every time a former KR is appointed to any kind of public
position, there is a major outcry," says Kassie.
"But it is so important that they become truly integrated into society. And
it has to be a two-way integration. Some non-KR must go into Pailin, and some former
KR people must come out of Pailin. That will only happen if they feel that they are
Few would doubt that when the former KR commit themselves to something, they are
During the election campaign in 1998, the Pailin election committee, headed by Mei
Meakk, reportedly turned down several offers of bribes in return for votes. This
vigilance meant that the Sam Rainsy Party won Pailin's seat in the National Assembly.
However, Pailin has already now discovered that democracy has certain shortcomings,
especially if you are aligned with a powerless opposition. At a recent ceremony in
a remote area of Pailin's Sala Krau district, the chief of Prime Minister Hun Sen's
bodyguard unit, Hing Bun Hieng, flew in by helicopter to hand out rice, hoes, axes
and 20,000 riels to some 1,400 families from 13 poor villages.
Governor Y Chhien took the opportunity to point out that although Sam Rainsy won
the election in Pailin, only the government took good care of the municipality's
people - a clear signal that for practical and strategic reasons, the leadership
of Pailin has decided to side with the Strongman in Phnom Penh.
And yet, some ask, is that so different from the rest of Cambodia?