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Local leaders' mediation powers decline

Local leaders' mediation powers decline

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

judgment."

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.

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