Legal services for the disadvantaged did not exist in Cambodia until a decade ago. With the change in government in 1998, the US began to support efforts to strengthen civil society. While other donors focused on improving the judiciary and other state institutions with little measurable impact, the US backed many nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) working on human rights, rule of law, and government accountability. Many believe that the continued involvement of the US in civil society is critical to avoiding potential setbacks in Cambodia's young democracy.
USAID and the Community Legal Education Center
The US Agency for International Development (USAID) knows that empowering citizens to secure their rights is fundamental in breaking free from poverty. In 1996, USAID helped to found one of the first legal resource centers in Cambodia, the Community Legal Education Center (CLEC). Now a nationally registered NGO, and still supported by USAID, CLEC educates communities and government officials on citizens' legal empowerment and advocates reforms to protect citizens' rights. In part because of USAID's long-term support for CLEC, the center has evolved into an effective NGO capable of taking on sensitive, high-profile "land grabbing" and illegal eviction cases. CLEC has a unique two-part strategy: it selects legal cases that have the potential to generate wide publicity and debate, and it also demands broader accountability and respect for legal norms in Cambodian society as a whole.
CLEC helps Group 78, a group of families in Phnom Penh, avoid eviction
This approach was effective when one Phnom Penh community facing forced eviction sought CLEC's help. Group 78, a cluster of 146 families, sits on 11,700 square meters (approximately 3 acres) of prime real estate in the heart of Phnom Penh. Seeing commercial potential in the land, the municipality sought to evict the families who had been living there for over 20 years. In 2001, after proper documentation had been processed recognizing Group 78's right to remain on the land, the village chief falsified a white paper stating that the community members wished to vacate their land. In reality, the authority had duped them into signing an agreement to vacate. Intimidation tactics were used: residents were repeatedly threatened with house burnings if they did not clear out immediately. Undeterred, members of Group 78 went to the municipality and Land Management Ministry for an investigation. That investigation went nowhere for five years; then suddenly the community started receiving multiple eviction notices with different and flimsy justifications in each notice. One claimed the reason was for the city's beautification; another, that the land was classified as state land and that the people had no rights to it; and the last, that the land was owned by an unidentified individual. Fed up with the authority's actions, the community sought the aid of CLEC.
Man Vuthy, coordinator of CLEC, says of Group 78: "They know us because CLEC used to successfully help their neighboring community, Koh Pich (Diamond Island). They came to CLEC's office for help. And then CLEC accepted the case."
Group 78 resident and CLEC client Lam Sambo describes his community’s struggle to claim their legal rights:
"Since 2006, I have received five to six eviction notices. CLEC recognized the notices were inconsistent. We benefit from the NGO. With CLEC's help, we can stay here and are stronger than before because we trust our legal support. We know how strong the commune is. If we don’t have strong legal aid, we will be gone in a few hours."
CLEC pressed the case that the government had no grounds to expel Group 78. Since the community has strong possession rights as stipulated in the 2001 Land Law, the authorities had no right to evict the community. According to CLEC, publicity generated from this case has helped spread the notion within Cambodian society that citizens can use the law to defend themselves and uphold their rights, even in conflicts with the government.1
Not many NGOs will work on high-profile cases like Group 78's because they consider it too dangerous. In an environment where power is highly concentrated among elites and is not often questioned, it is risky to take on the government. Despite numerous threats and arrests, CLEC has been able to achieve tremendous success because of USAID's continued investment and belief in CLEC's public interest advocacy. Thanks to CLEC's work, many citizens realize they have legal rights and feel some confidence in demanding that their government respect those rights. By committing to a long-term and broad- reaching effort at improving the justice system and building consensus for reforms, USAID has fostered an environment where active citizens can finally have a voice in their government.
However, CLEC staff are unsure of how long they can expect this investment by USAID. Since CLEC must apply every year for funding from the US, they can't predict whether they will have the funds to continue their work defending citizen rights. According to Yeng Virak, executive director of CLEC, they may be victims of their own success: "USAID money supports this project. However, our funding is ending this year, and we will have to apply again next year. Our project has been too effective and is seen as troublesome to the government because we do impact high-profile litigation cases."2
1 Group 78's story has been followed by The Phnom Penh Post, Voice of America, Amnesty International, Center on Housing Rights and Evictions, UN Cambodia Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, numerous other organizations, blogs, and networking sites.
2 This article is based on interviews conducted in October 2008. Since then, CLEC has received funding from USAID to continue its high-impact advocacy work. To see Group 78 residents describe their situation as of May 2009, view a video by LICADHO (Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights), a Cambodian NGO that advocates human rights.