Sunday, May 31, 2009

A Visit to the War Remnants Museum – Remnants of the War

Fifteen years ago I visited what was then called the American War Crimes Museum in Ho Chi Minh City. Its name has been changed to the War Remnants Museum, reflecting improving relations between the United States and Vietnam, and the building has been expanded, but the feelings of overwhelm and sadness remain the same.

The Vietnam War defined my generation and it continues to reverberate in our psyches and in our country. Inside this non-descript three story structure filled with photos and posters and artwork and accessed through a courtyard where captured U.S. tanks and helicopters and fighter planes sit as uneasy reminders of a war that took the lives of too many Vietnamese and Americans, all of the emotions and memories come flooding back: The Vietnamese resisting a foreign army yet again, images of napalm burning the flesh of a child running naked in the middle of the road, American soldiers with little choice, struggling to protect themselves and fighting a misguided war of three Presidents – Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon (and Democratic and Republican Congresses alike) and dieing on the battle field as the local news brought us daily body counts of ‘ours’ and ‘theirs’. There is Walter Cronkite first in a helicopter wearing a helmet and then coming out against the war. There is Johnson resigning. There are Kissinger and Nixon whose secret plans to end the war bring escalation and Christmas bombings. There is Madame Nhu and Diem and Westmoreland and General Giap and Ho Chi Minh and Tonkin Gulf and Senators-in-opposition Ernest Gruening and Wayne Morse. There are the Oakland 7 and the Chicago 7 and troop trains and Canada and flagged draped coffins and draft boards and deferments. There it all is, in your head, as you walk though exhibits depicting destruction in Vietnam, opposition around the world, and art work spawned by war.

On this visit, all I can think about is the death on both sides. American and Vietnamese lives needlessly extinguished. So much has happened since: Vietnam is rebuilt, most of its people were not alive during the war, relations with the Americans have been ‘normalized’, but the war is still there. It will always be there and the War Remnants Museum it turns out is aptly named – the remnants remain.

Cambodia and Vietnam: Forty Minutes by Air and Worlds Apart

It is impossible to overstate the difference between Cambodia and Vietnam. Cambodia to the Western eye moves slowly and painfully. At dinner the other night Virak Seng, the Director of the Cambodian Legal Education Center which USF proudly started, talked about economic progress, but also commented that we are “still at square one”. Indeed. There may be cranes and construction, but the feel of Cambodia is very much the same as it was fifteen years ago. Even the issues remain the same as the constant struggle to deal with the Khmer Rouge past continues to haunt the country.

Vietnam is only a forty minute flight away, but it is worlds apart. This is a huge powerful nation (population 85 million compared to Cambodia’s 13 million), poised, for better or worse, to enter the WTO with signs of an emerging wealth everywhere: huge high rise construction on the Saigon River and chain hotels (the Hyatt, the Marriott and all the rest), a new international airport, and auto showrooms that feature BMWs. This may only be a surface wealth masking Vietnam’s problems of poverty, repression of human rights and the struggles of its ethnic minorities, but the truth is that the minute you emerge from Tan Son Nhat Airport in Ho Chi Minh City and head to the hotel, the fate of the Japanese, the French and the Americans in Viet Nam is completely understandable. This is a very beautiful, tough, proud, and capable country.

Friday, May 29, 2009

My Dinner with Visal, Neam, Virak, Chuon, Pheap, Thannah, Kim Sean, Sokry, Kumnith, Sipahn, and Saray (Not a Movie)

This is way too a long a story to tell on a blog. After all, people have lives to lead rather than blogs to read. So here are a few punch lines:

  • 15 years ago USF began bringing Khmer law students to Cambodia whose legal education was interrupted by the KR horror or whose legal education began in refugee camps on the Thai border around 1989. 20 or more students have come to USF.

  • Today, virtually all of them are involved in important positions in Cambodia, seeking to rebuild a shattered, maimed country that despite apparent economic progress visible from the back of a motto, continues to suffer the ills of too little education, too few institutional resources (particularly the judiciary), too much corruption and too little money flowing to the right places (perspective: Alex Rogriguez signed a 5 year contract with the Texas Rangers for 262 million dollars. That same year, the entire GNP of Cambodia was 300 million dollars).

  • Last night we all gathered around a table outside in a Cambodian restaurant run by an NGO under trees pushed by a warm wind, toasting each other over bottles of red wine and Tiger beer (stick with the beer, trust me.)

As we sat around the table and my Cambodian friends thanked us for bringing them together, I could not help but think how gracious and giving they are. The truth is that they have given us at USF the gift of the privilege of peeking into their culture and tragic past. We are the ones that owe thanks.

I also could not help but think about the implications of this scene for legal education and our goals: We are all so focused on our work in the United States and the 'quality' of our students and our 'reputation' -- no doubt we should be. But as we go about our work, we must not lose sight of the good we can do by simply opening our doors, our minds, and our hearts to others with different perspectives, different goals and different ways of life. As I looked at our Cambodian friends, all now lawyers, all doing good work, I kept thinking: who would have ever guessed. Initially, we worried about their English skills, could they handle the work, could they do this or that...the reality is that in many ways they can handle almost anything -- including tragic losses at the hands of the KR -- they just need our resources and the ability to do what they think necessary for their country; not what we think important.

But I digress. Let me go around the table and introduce you:

  1. This is Klawk Chuon, his son, now a law student, is here also. Chuon is the oldest of the students and has been working at the Ministry of Commerce for 15 years. He got his certificate from USF and his law degree in PP at a law school we helped established. We call him Mr. Choun out of light-hearted respect. He hugs me when we see each other.

  2. To Chuon's left is Koy Neam who now works for the Asia foundation after a recent stint with the United Nations Development Program. Neam's education began on the Thai border. Of all of the student/lawyers, he is the "Dean", respected for his knowledge and intelligence (not traits that necessarily go with all Deans.) Neam once described to me and Sue how he was marched out of PP in April 1975, people being shot and tossed in the Ton Le Sap. Neam also asks me to get the IRS off his back. Yes, somehow during his time in the United States they claim he owes them 2,000 dollars. The world is collapsing and our government is going after Neam for 2000 dollars. I tell Neam that I will set the agent straight or at least have fun trying to set him straight.

  3. At the head of the table on my left, is Suon Visal, who is now Secretary General of the Bar. We discuss the number of lawyers in Cambodia, the need for them, and the struggles of those fighting the good fight as corrupt interests constantly try to fire and even imprison them. Visal knows first hand. When with the Cambodia Defender Project, he was almost jailed. The fact he is now Secretary General of the Bar is remarkable. The country now has 626 lawyers, he reports to me. Not enough.

  4. And on Visal's left is Som Sokry. What a story he is. He now lives in Washington D.C. where he has a position with Radio Free Asia (not under U.S. government censorship control he emphasizes.) He is back in Cambodia hosting a radio talk show and covering the Tribunal on the radio.

  5. And there is Run Saray. Another great story. Finally his deteriorating teeth have been fixed (dental care in Cambodia is not a growth industry) and on Monday he begins a new job as Director of Legal Aid of Cambodia. 50 some lawyers all over the country involved in cases ranging from family rights to land rights to criminal defense. He too bemoans the lack of legal infrastructure and the corruption in the Courts. He is concerned about the responsibility of his new job, but excited by the opportunity. I tell him that I wish I could be on his staff.

  6. Next to Saray is Roth Kumnith, the only one at the table in the private sector, working for more than fifteen years for the Bank of Canada. He talks of Cambodia's not suffering during the economic downturn like other countries ("when you ain't got nothin', you got nothin' to lose"? Dylan, B.). He is so warm and affectionate and generous. The meal is ending and I go to pay the bill. He literally grabs me and says 'no'!. I don't argue.

  7. And there is Tuon Sipahn. You'll love this one. We talk about getting sick in Cambodia. He came to the U.S. in 1995 and got typhoid. Go figure! Today he is at the Council of Ministers in a very important position, negotiating foreign agreements around the globe. He just returned from Korea. Sipahn always intrigued me. Warm, soft, quiet, and posture bowed as you speak with him. Is it my romantic naivite? Is he standing taller tonight?

  8. I'll skip Choun's law student son for now. He has already asked for a scholarship to USF. To be continued on that one. :-)

  9. Pen Pheap is at the end of the table. He was part of the first group that came to the US in 1995, along with Neam, Chuon, Tey Sambo (who is not here tonight) and Mam Thannah, seated next to him. Pheap always looked more Western than the others. The same beautiful dark skin (would someone please explain racism to me -- would you rather have Pheap's complexion or mine? It's not close.). Pheap has been involved in various legal projects since he came to USF -- all focused on the rule of law in Cambodia. I ask him how his beautiful wife and children are.

  10. And there is Thannah. Of all of the students, he initially had difficulties adjusting, but has done so much since getting his certificate at USF and his law degree. He is now in charge of document filings at the Tribunal. No small job!

  11. Coming around the table, the two final folks. Not last or least. There is Seng Virak. He is the director of the Cambodian Legal Education Center. He is not technically a USF alum, but we have adopted him. We set the Center up in 1996 and, as I've mentioned elsewhere, it is now entirely Khmer and self-sustaining. He has been a remarkable Director, turning the institution from strictly classroom learning to activist lawyering around the country. The great combination of mind and active heart. He too has been targeted and attacked, but he carries on. He needs more lawyers desperately. His demeanor is so professional, compact, well dressed, the small trimmed moustache giving him a serious authority that somehow works. I am grateful to him tonight for taking the leading oar in bringing all of us together.

  12. And finally, the only woman present tonight -- there were others in the program -- is Kim Sean who remarkably informs me that she is a grandmother. Impossible. She too is doing good work with the East West Foundation that manages many Rule of Law Projects in Cambodia. She is I surmise the CFO of the organization which has budgets in the millions. She is smart, tough and beautiful. She also orders all of the food. 10 courses perhaps?

  13. And those not there: Youk Ngoy who runs the law school RULE and who I visited earlier that afternoon and watched the finals of the their Moot Court competition with hundreds of students present. Also missing is Tey Sambo who worked with UNESCO for years, whose husband is in the foreign service in Paris, and who is rumored to be in Seam Reap at the moment. And others are missed too.

It's now 9:30. I'm exhausted and folks need to get home. A final photo and lifting of the glass: To all of us, our health, our future and our dreams!

To be continued.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Random Thoughts of Change and No Change and Swirling Fans and Geckos

Today is the last day in Phnom Penh before heading off to Ho Chi Minh City (Saturday and Sunday) and then Hanoi. A whole different world there, but those thoughts will wait.

Today is about seeing old Cambodian friends with whom the law school has worked over the years -- the Dean of a law school in Phnom Penh, Youk Chang at the Cambodian Genocide Project (where the students do a moot court exercise at the end of their class, representing the various sides in the tribunal), a visit to the Center for Community Legal Education which we formed in 1997 and is now entirely Khmer-run and self sustaining, and tonight a dinner with a group of the lawyers that we brought to the law school in the mid-nineties as part of our very first project in Cambodia.

It is hard to imagine more different realities than ours and these folks, but connections and feelings remain so intense. What almost all of them have been through is incredible, some surviving the forced march from Phnom Penh in April 1975 and almost all having lost members of their families to the Khmer Rouge terror.

Yesterday and thoughts of the trip continue to rattle around in my head:
  • A different Phnom Penh?: There is no question that in the fifteen years since I first came here the city has changed. You notice it when you fly in: the density of the city is striking and the airport an entirely different affair than the small one building structure that was here in the early 90s. Now massive new ministry buildings and even a high rise (20 stories?) are part of the hodge podge architecture that is taking its toll on the once French colonial feel of yellowed low slung buildings. The cyclo pedaled by thin-legged and very strong Cambodian men has given way to a tuk-tuk-type contraption drawn by a motorcyle (moto) -- a definite improvement. Traffic lights now are omnipresent, even with clocks to countdown the seconds to signal the change in lights. In 1994, there was not a traffic light in the city. Bars and neon have replaced many of the buildings, particulalry along the river. The old Le Royal hotel with its circular driveway and easy chairs where drinks were once served long into the night has given way to a beautiful Raffles hotel that has restored the impressive structure. But in many ways nothing has changed: the traffic is as chaotic as ever, a slow moving ballet of sorts with drivers weaving in an out to prove the theorem that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line and motos carrying construction materials, whole families, chickens, and fruits. In the end, this remains a city struggling to find its identity following the Vietnam war, following the evacuation of the city in the time of Pol Pot, following the Vietnamese occupation, following the UN occupation during the time of the transitional government, get the point.
  • A night cap with the students: There is a wonderful bar in this town, the Foreign Correspondent's Club (the FCC) frequented by the ex pat community, many of whom probably spend too much time there. It is an open air building that overlooks the waters of the Ton Le Sap which flows upstream for part of the year (a story in itself.) You enter the bar from the street where a snarl of motos and tuk tuks wait for passengers. The building is a one of those old French colonial ones that now seem to be fading from the landscape. One walks up a wood banistered stair case to the second floor where a bar dominates the middle of the room and tables line the open-air views on to the river. Fans swirl and geckos crawl around the walls and ceilings as folks play pool, sit in easy chairs, view local art on the walls, or just sip drinks looking out over the river. It has that kind of Casablanca feel. When you get to the top of the stair you expect someone to greet you and tell you that Bogie and Bacall are in the corner and want to know why you're late. Needless to say, the students found this joint the first day they were here. So did I last night with them.

To be continued.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Of students, Killing Fields, Toul Sleng and Tribunals

It's now Thursday. I lost a full day of blogging because of a computer crash. So now in the Business Center in my Phnom Penh Hotel with a day and one half to reflect on our students and visits to Cambodia's Killing Fields, the notorious Toul Sleng Prison (S-21) where at least 15,000 were tortured and murdered, and to the Tribunal where evidence is being taken against Toul Sleng mastermind, Duch, who sits unshackled, tells all and has found Christianity at this late stage in his suddenly repentent life (and God help him!).

I've been in and out of Cambodia so many times, working with others in the late 90s to train would-be judges for a tribunal that never happened then. No matter how many trips, however, I am constantly struck by the power of the Killing Fields and Toul Sleng visits, and this time, watching our five students experience the horrors, the history, the unfathomable is particularly powerful.

The Killing Fields and andToul Sleng sit in stark contrast to one another but are inextricably bound by common policies of a murderous relentless state. The former is on the outskirts of Phnom Penh in a beautiful even serene setting. This is not a Dachau or Teresenstadt with its feel of a city dedicated to murder. Rather, this is a dumping ground for the dead. In 1979, skulls and bones littered the landscape. Today, the Vietnamese-built monument to the dead, with skulls piled 30 feet into the air in a glassed-in pagoda-like building dominates the landscape and is the first shoeless stop one makes to pay homage to the murdered. Once descending the few steps of the shrine, one is still left to wander an almost lush landscape that has changed little since the murderers mercilessly killed their own. Walking the paths, one still encounters bones and clothing peeking through the soil that continues to erode and reveal the ghosts of the dead. ("Do not pick up bones," the signs incredibly remind).

Toul Sleng is in the city, a former three story school whose architecture is typical of school architecture in a hot, humid Southeast Asia -- classrooms, sometimes open to the outside, protected by eaves, and opening to balconies that serve as open-air hallways. But the sounds of children no longer echo in these rooms. Steel beds, chains, photos of the dead kept by the Khmer Rouge, instruments of torture, remarkable photographs of the dead and dying after the Khmer Rouge fled, instruments of torture (water boarding [Mr. Cheney, please visit here!], guillotines) leave sounds of screaming prisoners echoing in one's head -- sounds confirmed by what still appear to be bloodstained floors (or is it just worn tiles?)

We walk through the Killing Fields and Toul Sleng all morning long. Tears on the face of one student. A statement of "overwhelming" from another. A gratifying proclamation by another that there is no way to understand genocide without being at the Killing Fields; and, a poignant scene as two students sit alone amid incense and beautiful foliage, contemplating the unimaginable.

In Toul Sleng, amid the photos of the faces of the dead -- lined up line-up style as in a police station -- one is particularly disturbing. The photo reveals more than most. Down at the woman's waist, is a portion of her child's head poking through the bottom of the photo with the child's arm's reaching in apparent anguish to the mother's forlorn face.

And so it goes...we are all quiet and we get out of our van and the students return to their hotel. And now it is the following day and we are sitting in the tribunal where ironically Duch, whose prison we visited the day before is now on trial. After repeated failed efforts for more than a decade, the tribunal has finally begun and the students are fortunate to be able to witness it. To be sure, it has been mercilessly attacked for many reasons -- corruption, too long delayed, prosecutions that do not dig deep enough down the chain -- but as we sit there one suspects, that while imperfect, Cambodia is trying to deal with its tragic and murderous past perhaps as best it can and in ways which, I remain convinced, no Westerner can fully understand.

The courtroom is a tens of millions of dollar effort, an auditorium style building with seats for 350 or so who view the proceedings through a glass barrier where the stage in this Pirandello-like drama is filled with judges, lawyers, survivors (who sit behind some of the lawyers), translators, and Duch himself, who would blend in as one of the court personnel if one didn't know who he was. Today, Duch is just an observer as the Western expert, in an almost, cold and calculated cadence, recites facts and opinions about the torture, the confessions, and the chain of command. The beautifully robed lawyers aim their voices toward the platform which holds the international and Cambodian judges in their colorful robes flanked by large Cambodian and United Nations' flags on the wall. The sacharrine civility of the lawyers and the judges mask the reality of murder, torture and tragedy which the students experienced just the day before.

But there is no denying what is at stake here. The students get it. We all get it. And at that moment, I can' help but be proud that our students have the oppportunity to experience the responsibility that comes with the privilege of studying law. To be sure, they likely will not be (as most of us have not been) participants in a drama of the magnitude of the trial of those responsible for Pol Pot's and the Khmer Rouge's reign of terror. But there is no denying that as they watch the proceedings through glass, the power of the law and what it is capable of doing to tranform lives and society is seeping into their psyches. It surely continues to find its way into my thoughts as I feel lucky and privileged to be there at that moment.

To be continued!

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

In Phnom Penh

Jet lagged. In Phnom Penh after traveling for 24 straight hours (SFO – Taipei – Bangkok – Phnom Penh). Now back at the hotel after seeing three of our students at dinner. (The other two were at the hotel finishing up written pieces for the law review.)

I'm tired. So I flip on CNN and live at this moment is President Obama flanked by new Supreme Court nominee Judge Sotomayor and Vice President Biden.

I mention all of this because the seamless transition on our Court, regardless of how one views a particular nominee, stands in sharp contrast to the complete breakdown of the rule of law followed by the horrific genocide in Cambodia from 1975 – 1979. As I think about it, this point was really brought home for me tonight. After dinner, I saw the startling 1979 film by East German filmmakers, Kampuchea: Death and Rebirth, chronicling the horrors of the Khmer Rouge with rare footage and interviews. Seeing the movie and now seeing the President on television drives home how lucky we are and how vigilant we must be to sustain and nurture the rule of law.

Tomorrow we will visit the Killing Fields and the Toul Sleng prison where as many as 15,000 Cambodians were tortured and murdered. In the afternoon, I’ll be at the tribunal where Duch, who ran the prison, is on trial. The students and Howard De Nike and I will go on Thursday. This is an incredible experience for them that I suspect is sure to impact their legal studies and work in the future.

Here is the blog that gives you a good feel for movie which so graphically describes what happened during the time of Pol Pot. By the way, the movie was screened at the Meta House in Phnom Penh that is dedicated to promotion of all sorts of art and media. The top floor of the three story building has a small bar and a pull down screen. Maybe 100 folks were packed in to watch the movie.

A blog from the Phnom Penh Post:

Meta House was full as a tin of sardines last night, as people came out of the woodwork to watch an extraordinary historical documentary film - Kampuchea : Death and Rebirth - by the East German filmmakers Walter Heynowski and Gerhard Scheumann, who were one of the first reporting crews to get access to Cambodia after the expulsion of the Khmer Rouge from power in the spring of 1979. It certainly lived up to its billing of unique and raw footage from a devastated Cambodia. The mesmeric journey through the completely empty streets of Phnom Penh and the interviews with the handful of shell-shocked inhabitants who'd managed to survive the genocide, often by hiding their true identities, was powerful stuff for the time. British audiences had already seen some of the shocking scenes from Cambodia in John Pilger's Year Zero documentary in October 1979 but the Heynowski/Scheumann film featured more interviews and street scenes. It also contained interviews with leading characters such as Pen Sovann, the leader of the new Kampuchean authorities, a youthful student named Khieu Kanharith, who is now the Minister of Information and Khmer Rouge leader Ieng Thirith, who is currently awaiting trial in Phnom Penh for crimes against humanity.

Monday, May 25, 2009

It's now 12:20 AM on Monday, May 25, 2009. Nearly 14 years since my first trip to Cambodia. In those years, Cambodia has become an important part of my life. I have been blessed to be part of the University of San Francisco's School of Law's involvement in Cambodia efforts to rebuild itself after the Khmer Rouge reign of terror that took the lives of one to two million in four short years through torture, murder and starvation from 1975 to 1979.

The law school's involvement in Cambodia began in 1993 when Professor Dolores Donovan who had worked in the Cambodian refugee camps on the Thai border secured a grant from USAID to bring Cambodians to USF to begin to reengage in their legal studies which had been interrupted during Pol Pot's time. That initial grant led to intense involvement in efforts to promote the rule of law with justice in Cambodia by the law school, including creating an independent law school, a Center for legal education, training teachers, developing curriculum and, during one very eventful summer, training would-be judges who might serve on a tribunal.

Of course, the tribunal did not come to pass in those days, but since has been established and is in session, finally, in Phnom Penh. For years, preceding the tribunal, the law school has taught a course on war crimes during summers in Phnom Penh. This summer is particularly poignant because, for the first time, the tribunal is actually in session.

Now, I'm at SFO about to board a plane for Phnom Penh to join our students and Howard de Nike who has been teaching the course for the past three years. We have arranged to see the tribunal in session as early as Wednesday and Thursday of this week. It will be fascinating to see Duch, who headed the notorious Toul Sleng prison, in the dock.

For those that have followed the tribunal to date, you know that it has been fraught with charges of corruption and claims that few if any of the perpetrators will be brought to justice. Regardless, this must be such an incredible moment for so many Cambodians to finally have a forum that is hearing evidence about the tragedy that was Cambodia during the time of the Khmer Rouge.

One thing I've learned over the years is that it is difficult for any Westerner to truly understand Cambodia and all that has gone on. I feel this acutely because I have not been there is in such a long time -- nearly 6 years. So I'm anxious to listen and learn. I'm anxious to see how my good students react to all that they are about to experience. I'm anxious to try and understand whether the tribunal will be a moment of justice and healing for Cambodia.

To be continued...