The narrative below documents our work in Cambodia, from the first research stint during which we went on field trips and interviewed survivors to learn more about the Khmer Rouge period, to the ways in which survivor testimonies are understood in context of larger historical narratives. It is also an account, in brief, of AJA’s establishment and its award-winning pro bono human rights work in representing the indigenous Khmer Krom community before the ECCC. In a word, a story of trials, tribulations, collaborations, challenges, struggles and victories.

July – August 2007

With a 6-month research scholarship to spend time in Cambodia and a pro bono attorney position at the Center for Social Development (CSD: now no longer in existence), we arrived in Cambodia towards the end of July 2007.

Mahdev is tasked with working with the CSD team to conduct film-based outreach and develop collaborative initiatives with other local NGOs. The film in question is episodic in nature and portrays a fictional couple telling their children about the Khmer Rouge era. An initiative of Khmer Mekong Films (KMF) and the War Crimes Studies Center (WCSC) at UC Berkeley, it is the first time that anything of this nature is taken to the provinces, with a view to informing people about the “Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia” or the ECCC.

We learn about the coalition of NGOs called CHRAC (Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee); we see how the civil society sector interprets the call to conduct court-related outreach and how these initial efforts would pave the way for the civil party participation process down the road. We also see the flaws and challenges in the system, with donor funding determining what sorts of programs will be funded in the context of justice for victims of mass crimes.

24th July – Chim Math

The controversy around Chim Math, then dubbed the “only female survivor of Tuol Sleng”, erupts in the public domain. A group of survivors are taken on a routine tour of Tuol Sleng, the notorious prison in Phnom Penh run by Duch. One of them spots a familiar face in the rows and rows of eerie black and white photos of interred victims – it is Chim Math. She tells the CSD staff that the woman in the photo, then 18 years of age, is alive and well, living on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.

An AP photographer takes an evocative black and white shot of Chim Math at Tuol Sleng, peering at the photo of herself, her 18-year old face staring blankly back.

The publicity storm has a ripple effect, raising questions about survivors who may or may not be alive and the role of documentation in such circumstances.

Psychologists and trained counsellors with CSD take Chim Math’s statement. She contemplates participating at the Tribunal, if and when the first trial begins. The statement she gives also raises issues regarding female survivors and how often women remain silent for decades because of the pain and shame associated with war-time trauma. Chim Math goes on to testify at the hearing for Duch (known as case 001) in 2010.

​September – November 2007

Between September to November 2007, the first drafts of what will become the Victim Information Form take shape. Theary Seng, then executive director of CSD, becomes the first civil party to submit a rendition of this application, when no such form exists as yet. We sit down and craft an “application” together. We list out the crimes that the ECCC will prosecute. Life experiences and crimes are categorized: forced relocation; imprisonment; forced disappearance; starvation; hard labour; child labour; torture.

We place boxes next to each one and we slowly put together what we imagine would be a civil party application. For us, it’s a bizarre and profound experience. We have no idea what we are doing and work with what we know would make sense. It is an eerie experience, categorizing someone’s life in such a manner, distilling trauma into a set of plausible, provable legal categories.

The VIF form is subsequently formalized by various key parties involved at the ECCC and in the local civil society sector. Applications slowly start coming in for complainants and civil parties.

In December 2007, our fellowship comes to an end.

October- November 2008

Following a year of research and stints in Cambodia, Access to Justice Asia is established in October 2008. Meanwhile, in the background, the debates on reparations and civil party participation have begun in earnest.

  • Surveys on reparations have begun, led by various institutions.
  • CHRAC organizes its first large conference on reparations;
  • There are concerns and resistance to in depth discussions on reparations as the ECCC will not be giving individual survivors any financial compensation.
  • NGOs and intermediary organizations are told that they are in charge of organizing outreach trips and bringing survivors to Phnom Penh for forums held in the city.

We meet civil society leaders who work with ethnic minorities and indigenous Khmer Krom survivors. These early discussions turn out to be foundational in meeting with, documenting and subsequently representing members of the Khmer Krom community before the ECCC.

26th – 27th November, 2008 (Cambodia) – Reparations Conference

The first conference on reparations is animated by nuanced and complex questions from survivors, civil parties to the first case (indicting Duch) and issues that to this day, largely remain unresolved.

Among the issues raised:

  • The issue of monies deposited in overseas banks and whether the court has the ability to reclaim these funds for reparations purposes;
  • Families / progeny of perpetrators worried about having to pay victims because they have inherited the fortunes/assets of defendants;
  • The issue of indigence in relation to the defendants.
  • Some civil parties ask explicitly for monetary compensation;
  • Many victims from the floor state they want memorials in every province and names engraved on every memorial.

July 2009 – Cambodia

AJA has its first interns on the ground to do field research and interviews with our local partners in relevant provinces. The field interviews and data gathered on these trips form the foundations upon which the Khmer Krom case for Pursat and Takeo are subsequently built.

September – October 2009: UC Berkeley Human Rights Law Clinic

We discuss collaborative litigation research and clinical work with Professor Laurel Fletcher. The first AJA-UC Berkeley Human Rights Law Clinic collaboration takes off in October 2009, with students from the clinic tasked with conducting research and doing field work in Cambodia for the Khmer Krom case.

We also establish links with the Royal University of Law & Economics (RULE) in Phnom Penh, so that interns from the law faculty can assist us with research and interviews. In October, the RULE and UC Berkeley students have an opportunity to meet, interact and work together to assist in a workshop for civil parties held in Phnom Penh.

AJA files its first significant submission to the Victims Unit (now known as the Victims Support Section).

December 2009 – January 2010

A number of press articles are written on the subject of genocide charges (Filing to Urge Genocide Charge  by Robbie Corey-Boulet and May Titthara. Phnom Penh Post, 22 October 2009). The call for further investigations is rejected by the court. The press once again covers this (see: KR Tribunal Judges will not pursue K Krom Genocide Charges, by Julia Wallace. Cambodia Daily, 20 January 2010 and No Charges of Genocide of K Krom by James O’ Toole, Phnom Penh Post 19 January 2010].

February-March 2010 – Appeal Submission

In February, AJA’s legal team and UC Berkeley’s clinic appeal the Co-Investigating judges’ January decision to reject the Khmer Krom civil parties. In March, the press once again cover the Khmer Krom case issue.

13-14 May 2010 – Re-admittance of Khmer Krom civil parties

AJA succeeds in its efforts, as 15 Khmer Krom civil parties are “re-accepted” by the court as civil parties. However, genocide charges are not discussed. There is further press coverage on the issue [KRT Judges Rule on Civil Parties by James O’Toole. May 13 2010, Phnom Penh Post].  The Khmer Krom are considered “outside” the scope of investigations. The issue is covered in the press again. [Ruling Clarifies KRT Civil Parties by James O’Toole. May 14 2010 Phnom Penh Post]. However, the 15 Khmer Krom clients are the first clients to be accepted by the court for case 002 – an ironic victory for the AJA and Berkeley legal teams.

June 2010: DC-Cam Pursat Public Forum for the Khmer Krom

The Documentation Center of Cambodia organizes a public forum in Bakan district, Pursat province for the Khmer Krom community members and civil parties. At the forum, International Co-Prosecutor Andrew Cayley states:

“The specific reason that I come here today, is because I recognize the suffering of the Khmer Krom people during the Khmer Rouge period. I know there is a feeling amongst some of your community that you haven’t been properly considered by the Court. But I want to say today sincerely why I’m here is because I do recognize what has happened to you as a people.  There are certain problems that have been recognized, and we can deal with those in the questions. You have my word, that the Khmer Krom will be in that document, and a number of the crimes that were committed against you as a people will be included in that document.  You will be identified as a group within this country that suffered.” [italics ours]

The event is covered by the press: See: Prosecutor Has Kind Words, No Answers for K Krom by Phorn Bhopa and Alice Foster (Cambodia Daily, June 16 2010), and Reassuring the Khmer Krom by James O’ Toole and May Titthara (Phnom Penh Post, June 14 2010).

June-July 2010

AJA launches its J.A.M program (Justice, Art, Memory), with Asian interns from the United States who spend two months of the summer documenting Khmer Krom stories through photographer, oral narrative recordings and videography.

June – August 2010 – AJA J.A.M. Program (continuation) & Duch Hearing

AJA’s Summer J.A.M program continues as the date is set for the Duch verdict hearing (July 26th 2010), which the AJA J.A.M. interns and founders attend. Duch is sentenced to 35 years, but due to reductions for time served and time spent in detention, he is set to serve 18 years in total. The sentence is subsequently appealed by the Prosecution and Duch is sentenced to life.

September 2010

AJA begins formal collaboration with Yale University’s Lowenstein Human Rights Law Clinic, where once again, Yale students work with AJA’s legal team to do research and prepare submissions for the Khmer Krom case. News of International Co-Prosecutor’s assurances to the Khmer Krom in the months prior are covered:

Professor Laurel Fletcher and Mahdev Mohan also write a commentary on the issue. The article, Khmer Krom Deserve Justice As Well is here:

June 2011

In June 2011, the International Co-Prosecutor at the UN-backed Khmer Rouge Tribunal, Andrew Cayley, files a “Request for Investigative Action and Supplementary Submission” which adds additional crimes to Case 004 at the court, including crimes committed against the Khmer Krom population in Takeo and Pursat provinces. The International Co-Prosecutor’s action is prompted by and based primarily on extensive evidence and research submitted by, among others, AJA and Clinical Professor of Law Laurel Fletcher of University of California (Berkeley) Law School.

Acknowledgment of the crimes committed against the Khmer Krom is a milestone victory for the community, which had previously been excluded from the court’s investigations. Legal submissions filed by AJA persuaded a majority of the KRT’s Pre-Trial chamber to re-consider a previous decision and, in an unprecedented move, admit 11 important clients whom the court had earlier rejected.

November 2011

In November 2011, AJA, Berkeley and the Center for Justice & Accountability to release a policy brief urging Cambodia’s UN-backed tribunal to comply with international law and grant reparations to civil parties. The report, “Victims’ Right to Remedy: Awarding Meaningful Reparations at the ECCC,” calls on the court to revise its legal interpretations that led to its rejection of nearly all reparations requests in the first Khmer Rouge trial. It recommends that reparations be examined at the start of the current trial and not treated as an afterthought.

November 2012

In November 2012, AJA leads the evidence of a Khmer Krom civil party – the first to be heard by the court.  SMU law students assisted the legal team with legal research and advocacy and worked together with students at Berkeley & Yale Law Schools.

May 4 2013

Following a decision on severance and “representativeness” of client testimonies for case 002, members of AJA wrote a commentary for the prestigious ilawyer blog run by UK’s Doughty Street Chambers. The commentary can be found here

December 2013 – May 2014

AJA Co-Founder Vinita Ramani was appointed a consultant curator with the Documentation Center of Cambodia to assist in the design and implementation of permanent exhibitions across five provinces in Cambodia, featuring the narratives of civil parties and victim complainants before the Khmer Rouge Tribunal. An essay reflecting on this experience was published in the Asian American Writer’s Workshop’s online publication The Margins. The piece, called Provenance Unknown, can be found here.