Ed. Note:  Part 1 of reflections on IBJ International Program Director Sanjeewa Liyanage’s Visit to Cambodia in 2010

I always look forward to visiting Cambodia. In early February this year I arrived in Phnom Penh. As I was holding a Sri Lankan passport, I was given “special treatment” by the immigration officials at the Phnom Penh Airport when they asked me to wait until they checked my passport and made sufficient photocopies. When I finally passed through customs, Ouk Vandeth, IBJ’s Cambodia Country Manager was there waiting for me as usual. The weather in Phnom Penh was unusually mild for Cambodian standards. Vandeth did not talk very much at first, and later asked me questions about my family and children. He is truly a legal warrior but also a devout family man. Vandeth is the father of seven children and also has ten grandchildren. Relishing the importance of family, Vandeth cherishes family memories. He even had photos of my two children and Karen’s two children stuck on the wall behind his chair in the office. There was also an old photo of him and I, taken around 1999 in Hong Kong when we first met during a human rights training session organized by the Asian Human Rights Commission. We both looked significantly younger in that picture and it was interesting to see old memories of the both of us. When that picture was taken, I never thought our paths would cross again. Today, however, Vandeth and I are close colleagues and part of a great team of people from around the world working to “eradicate torture in the 21st Century.”
The following day we conducted a daylong training event at the Phnom Penh office attended by 18 staff members. It was an important event where staff from different IBJ provincial offices met each other for the first time. It was a time for people to get to know each other beyond their names and where they came from. They talked about our mutual commitment to the cause for which we are working and the significance of our work in the provinces where there is often not a single resident lawyer. They also tried to imagine the kind of justice system that they would like to see 20 to 25 years from now and formulated their goals and action plans accordingly in an effort to make these dreams a reality.
It was a Sunday and in the late afternoon, all staff got ready to leave for their respective provinces. For some it was a two to four hour trip to return home. For Rattanakiri staff of Legal Aid Cambodia (LAC), it was a ten-hour trip to the Northeastern hills where they were mainly providing legal representation to indigenous people. I felt privileged to be with this group of energetic and young individuals. There was determination and courage in them although they were working in very challenging and harsh conditions in provinces, where lawyer are most needed today in Cambodia. These individuals are making a difference. They are sending a strong message to the legal community in Cambodia that it is your moral and ethical responsibility to help your own people in Cambodia, especially in these remote provinces where your assistance could mean the difference between life and death, prison or freedom.