By Sanjeewa Liyanage

Cambodia always has a special place in my heart. Experiences in Cambodia inspired Karen Tse to start International Bridges to Justice (IBJ). When I first started working for IBJ in 2006, I contacted IBJ’s first Fellow, Ouk Vandeth, who is from Cambodia. When I visited Cambodia in 2008 and met Vandeth, he reminded me that we have met before at a human rights workshop in Hong Kong in 1998 or 1999. He then found a photo of us taken somewhere in Hong Kong, framed it and hung it next to his desk, which is still there. So, Vandeth and I have come a long way and it is always a pleasure working with him. Today Ouk Vandeth is IBJ’s Cambodia Country Director and a driving force in strengthening IBJ’s work in the country.

I arrived in Cambodia on February 6th and as usual, Vandeth received me at the airport. On our way towards Phnom Penh city, I noticed many new developments. I told Vandeth that Cambodian cityscape is changing rapidly. Of course there were also more vehicles on the road slowing down our journey. I arrived at the small boutique hotel not too far from IBJ’s Cambodia office in Phnom Penh. The hotel resembled a three-storey house and the staffs were quick to take me to a spacious room. This place was home away from home.

Vandeth is a man of few words, especially when he has to speak in English. But I have a way of communicating with him and I know immediately when we have some sort of miscommunications.

It was great to visit the Phnom Penh office, which has more rooms than before. I remembered the old office, which had one floor and an elevated office room for Vandeth. Today we have over 10 staff and volunteers working there. It was a simple but well-organized office. I said hello to my colleagues in Cambodia, including Chandyna, the longest serving local staff in Cambodia after Vandeth. Dyna worked hard to support Vandeth with consolidating IBJ in Cambodia, and I know she sacrificed a lot during her first few years with IBJ.

After spending a few days in Phnom Penh, Vandeth, the newly recruited Deputy Country Director, So Beng Tharun and I departed on a long trip to visit a number of provincial offices in the remote areas of Phnom Penh. I met Tharun when he led the team in IBJ’s Defender Resource Center (DRC) in the Prey Veng province for many years. He left IBJ briefly to take up the position of Under Secretary of Justice at the Ministry of Justice and then returned to IBJ to become its deputy director. Tharun is the young blood among the lawyers, belonging to the smart phone and Facebook generation in Cambodia. Tharun is also a man of few words. But I know he is a brave and determined lawyer, who has dealt with many tough situations in Prey Veng when he defended hundreds of poor and helpless detainees and accused persons.

I was glad that Vandeth was not driving. His health condition demands him not to tire himself. But he is a person who puts work before his health. Instead Tharun drove but he had to drive for four days continuously through the countryside of Cambodia. But he did not utter a single word of complaint.

Our first destination was Prey Veng, where Tharun used to work. I remember my previous visit to Prey Veng, about 3 years ago and we had to cross the Mekong river to the other side. Prey Veng is not too far from Cambodia-Vietnam border. Buses, lorries, cars, motor cycles (motos, as they are called in Cambodia), bicycles and hawkers were cramped on the ferry. Hawkers were selling local delicacies like deep friend locusts, fried shrimp and green mangos. I managed to get a couple of green mangoes. Tasting them brought back childhood memories when my friends and I used to throw sticks at mangoes on trees in my neighborhood in Hendala, Sri Lanka. But Cambodian green mangoes did not taste as sour as some green mangoes I have tried.

After we crossed the river to the other side we quickly arrived at IBJ’s Prey Veng office opposite to Prey Veng’s Provincial Court compound. I briefly met Sarika, who has been IBJ’s office administrator since we started it around 2009. Tharun’s wife was from Prey Veng and she lives with his daughter not too far from IBJ’s office. Tharun then returned with a fresh pack of clothes for the journey and we hit the road again for our destination to Ratanakiri.

Sanjeewa Liyanage, International Program Director with Sa Rika, Administrator of the Prey Veng Provincial Court and Ouk Vandeth, IBJ Cambodia Country Director in front of the Phnom Penh Office

I have always wanted to visit Ratanakiri, which was where IBJ’s first legal aid project was. But, the 10-hour journey prevented me from visiting there during my short visits to Cambodia. This time I was determined and Vandeth agreed to go as well. But there was a huge challenge. Vandeth told me that a long stretch of the road towards Ratanakiri was badly damaged and that will really slow our journey down. I was trying to imagine how the road would look like.

Floating village in Kratie

We first arrived in Kratie, on our way to Ratanakiri. Tharun told me that we would be having lunch in the middle of the river. I did not understand what he meant so I asked, “You mean on a boat?” He said no, and repeated we will be having lunch in the middle of the river and did not give any details. When we later arrived at the floating village in Kratie I finally understood what Tharun meant: It was indeed a village built on the fast-flowing Mekong River. The river current was rapid. The wooden platform of which we sat on was only a few inches from the fast-flowing river beneath. Vandeth settled on a hammock, totally relaxed. Tharun settled on another hammock and was checking messages on his phone. We had a nice lunch and then ran into a couple of kids who wanted to sell us tiny fish they had trapped inside a plastic bottle.

Vandeth settled on a hammock

So Beng Tharun, IBJ Cambodia Deputy Country Director relaxing on a hammock

Kid selling tiny fish in a plastic bottle