On the evening of Sunday, March 3, one of the Cambodian members of the Interpretation and Translation Unit at the Khmer Rouge tribunal received a message from a colleague.
According to the tip, the chief of court management had learned national side staffers of the unit − who, like 270 other Cambodian tribunal employees, had not been paid in three months − were on the verge of a strike.
The Cambodian government is responsible for funding the national side of the court, but is currently facing an expected $7 million shortfall for 2013, and budget woes have seen salaries suspended entirely.
After learning of the impending action, the administration then allegedly sent out instructions to the ITU’s officer in charge to warn translators and interpreters that this was, essentially, a bad idea.
But it was too late. Though rumblings of a walkout had been ongoing for months, the core group of organisers had met 10 days beforehand to lay out a strategy, including drawing up a petition of demands. The historic strike – the first in the court’s history – was already in motion, and would be carried out with the timing and choreography of a secret mission.
“We also decided that our work boycott statement would have to be signed half an hour before we carried out the plan,” said one Khmer-to-English interpreter, who like all staffers of the unit interviewed for this article agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity.
“To keep this work confidential, every one of us was advised to act naturally, as if nothing had happened.”
The only undecided element of the plan was the date it would take place. That wrinkle was taken care of, however, when news of the walkout leaked Sunday, creating a now-or-never mood.
The next morning, a handful of interpreters and translators met outside of work to finalise matters. They arrived in the booth at the usual time, 8:30, and started signing the statement, which was prepared in Khmer, English and French. Ten minutes later, they briefed their international colleagues in the booth.
The hearing was supposed to start at 9am, but as it happens, there was a 20-minute delay. The interpreter who was acting as an organiser got nervous.
“We were worried, as we felt something might have gone wrong. Our plan might have been known and circumvented,” he said. But the judges arrived, and after everyone had been seated, a Khmer interpreter read out the statement, which a colleague interpreted into English; an international interpreter conveyed the English in French.
“We won’t get back to work unless our salaries for the months of December 2012, January and February 2013 are fully paid to us,” the translator-turned-spokesman said. “Thank you, Mr President.”
After that, the translators walked out of the room, and the strike, which has reached no conclusion as of press time last night, officially began.
When translators logged onto their email afterwards, they saw a message from the head of ITU warning them not to do what they had just done.
“Instruction from the upper echelon,” read the email. “All staff members have to go to work as usual. If you do any thing against the law, you shall be individually accountable for your act. ”
The court itself was thrown into disarray, and judges promptly called an adjournment. One lawyer said in an email that there was a “buzz in the air.” Michael Karnavas, the defence attorney for ex-Khmer Rouge Minister of Foreign Affairs Ieng Sary, had just learned that his client was in the hospital, and said he was preoccupied when the walkout happened.
“There had been rumours, but I certainly did not expect it. My first thoughts were: About time!” he said.
For the witness scheduled that day, Pol Pot biographer Philip Short – who had flown from France to give testimony – the news was no less shocking. “With very crestfallen faces, they [came in and] told me . . . the interpreters are on strike. And once that happened, there was not much anyone could do,” he said.
After the initial walkout, a flurry of meetings between the administration and the 30 striking interpreters and translators took place. On Tuesday, members of the unit appeared to soften their position by agreeing to return to work if December salaries were paid, but said they would strike again if – by the end of March – they had not been offered renewed job contracts backdated to January 2013, when their old contracts expired.
By Wednesday, a strange environment at the court prevailed, with members of the unit showing up at the office while technically on strike.
“We are here in the building, but we are not working,” a national interpreter said at the time. “Just sitting, chatting, drinking coffee, smoking.”
He said that in previous months he had felt “ashamed” at having to work side by side with international colleagues who were receiving paychecks, and this compelled him to join the strike. “I’m a breadwinner,” he said. “I have two kids.”
When another interpreter was asked yesterday if he felt the same way, he shot back: “The international side should be embarrassed about that as well.”
He said that some of the unit staffers now are “a bit frightened,” and that while ITU employees have put themselves on the front lines in the wage dispute, other colleagues fearful of going public supported them behind closed doors.
Even among the ITU team, it’s a burden not everyone is comfortable carrying, and the strike, not a week old, is already losing steam.
At press time, four or five translators were planning to return to work, according to one of the strike organisers.
Neth Pheaktra, court spokesman for the national side, said yesterday that the Office of Administration did not put pressure on anyone involved in the strike, adding that he hoped a pledged European Union grant will arrive soon to help pay for the December salary and resolve, temporarily, the situation.
Whatever the case, the organising interpreter said, the status quo is no longer sustainable.
“Being a translator and interpreter, you have to work very hard, paying great attention to precision and the text and translating the text properly. And because you really need to put aside part of your brain and thinking and thoughts to think about your stomach . . . I feel like if this condition continues, we would lose everything; we would lose the good quality of our work.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY JUSTINE DRENNAN