By Sanjeewa Liyanage

I was sufficiently warned about the road to Ratanakiri. I was expecting a rough ride. After lunch at the Kratie floating village and missing the opportunity to see river dolphins off the coast of Kratie in the Mekong river, we set off towards Stung Streng.  When we arrived at the beginning of the 60km stretch we realized how bad the road was. Tharun had to navigate through huge potholes gently. And Vandeth maintained his humor during this painful stretch telling me, “This is the massage road.” The vehicle shakes so much we get massaged until the whole body was sore. We saw the road ahead of us disappeared in the dust and the distant vehicles slowly began to appear as the dust settled in. A lonely dog in the middle of the highway enjoyed his moment as he walked faster than most of the vehicles on the road. Quite unexpectedly, after about 40km, I fell asleep. And when I woke up, Vandeth told me, “The massage is now over,” and we were on a smooth and flat highway again en route to Ratanakiri.

The “massage” road – a bumpy journey to Ratanakiri

We arrived at Ratanakiri at dusk after 10 hours. We and Tharun’s car survived the “massage road.”  Banglung city in Ratanakiri was somewhat different from what I expected. There were new building developments and small establishments. The hotel I stayed at was built not long ago and it was a decent and clean place. After freshening up, we set off for dinner with the Acting President of the Court, Chief Prosecutor and the Chief of Prison. We were at a restaurant by the lake. The first question to me came from the Chief Prosecutor, who was quite prosecutorial, was “Why did you come here?” I was a bit startled. I was thinking how to answer. I thought the best thing to do was to tell the truth: “I always wanted to come here and every time I visited Cambodia, the length of the trip to Ratanakiri made me postpone the idea of visiting here. But this time, I really wanted to come and to see Mao Sary and his team at the IBJ office.”  He was satisfied with the answer. Then I asked him why he asked that question. When he began to answer I only then realized the question was a compliment for me coming here. He told me, “No person from the capital wants to come here, not even my relatives want to visit me here. So I am very pleased to see a foreigner coming here to visit us. And we welcome you.”

Vandeth (top left), Chief Prosector (bottom left), Chief of Prison (second to left), Chief Judge (bottom center), Sanjee (top center), IBJ lawyer (second to the right), Deputy Director Tharun (bottom right): Dinner after a rough journey

We had a very frank discussion about the situation of the accused persons. They reminded me that the minority population in Ratanakiri speaks 18 languages and the court has to deal with all these languages without official translators. The Chief Judge and the Prosecutor told me that they are completely dependent upon Mao Sary, IBJ’s Legal Fellow attached to Ratanakiri Defender Resource Center. They told me the trials can progress only because of Sary. They also told me we should not even think about closing our office in Ratanakiri. That was quite an unexpected thing to hear from key justice officials in this province. They urged IBJ to increase its resources to our office in Ratanakiri. We discussed various challenges facing their work, including limited budget for the justice sector in Cambodia. While over hundred million dollars have been spent prosecuting a handful of persons at the ECCC special tribunal in Phnom Penh, the international community has conveniently “forgotten” to allocate at least 10% of that amount to rebuild the justice system in Cambodia.

Office building of the Ratanakiri Provincial Prison

On the 9th morning, we started our day by having breakfast at a local restaurant where a few young lawyers from Phnom Penh who were visiting their families in Ratanakiri joined us at the table. So, in fact, there ARE lawyers from this region, but they all flee to the capital Phnom Penh for lucrative job opportunities or simply to get rich. Mao Sary, IBJ Legal Fellow here, is from south of Cambodia and he came all the way to this remote area and has been helping the indigenous population here for over four years now, singlehandedly!

IBJ Legal Fellow Mao Sary (right), Sanjee (center), Vandeth (left) outside the Ratanakiri Provincial Prison

Then we visited the Ratanakiri Provincial Prison where the Chief of the Prison gave us a warm welcome. I was completely shocked to see the state of his office building. It was run down and badly needs to be rebuilt. We then had a brief visit to the prison. I quite foolishly asked a stupid question from Sary: “Sary, do you recognize some of your clients here?” Sary, looked at me with amusement, and replied quite seriously, “I know all of them! They are all my clients!” How stupid of me! Of course, he is the only lawyer in the whole province. They are all his clients! The whole population of the prison is represented by one lawyer, Mao Sary!

(from left to right) Tharun, Vandeth, Chief of Prison, Sanjee, Mao Sary

After thanking the Chief of Prison and Sary and his colleagues, we set off on another long journey towards Siem Riep. On the way, we stopped at Stung Streng for lunch where Vandeth and Tharun wanted to try a local fish delicacy. It was a small restaurant and next to our table was a middle-aged couple. Food started arriving at both tables. Vandeth, as usual, started a joke and engaged in a discussion with the lady at the next table. Suddenly, I saw Vandeth got up and went to the next table, examining a dish that had just arrived. He had a little chat and then borrowed a small bowl, served himself a small portion of the dish and returned to our table. He had known them for less than five minutes, and Vandeth was already sharing the dish on their table. I told Tharun that it is quite unusual to see that happening in other places, especially in the West or in Europe where people always order their individual meal. Here, you share not only the dishes on your table, but the dishes from the table next to you. That was Khmer culture at its best: People taking it easy, not being fussy, sharing meals with strangers! I was truly touched!

We then set off to cross the Mekong river again, this time, on a rather small ferry that could only accommodate two small vehicles: our car and a mini van and a dozen motos.

The only defender center in Ratanakiri has kept kids away from the inhuman jail time. However it could potentially close down this month. In order to help keep innocent kids away from pre-trial imprisonment and investigative torture, we are seeking long-term funding for the defender center. Please join this campaign and help us with fundraising to keep Cambodia torture free.