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Rebuilding Cambodia’s Bar

His Excellency Suon Visal and Bill Pickett at the Office of the Bar Association of the Kingdom of Cambodia; photo credit: Shannon Bush
His Excellency Suon Visal and Bill Pickett at the Office of the Bar Association of the Kingdom of Cambodia; photo credit: Shannon Bush

February 7, 2020

From January 6th through the 18th , I had the opportunity to join Bill Pickett, Immediate Past President of the Washington State Bar Association, and the Honorable John C. Coughenour, United States District Judge for the Western District of Washington, on a trip to Cambodia as part of their “Building Bridges” initiative. This was their second occasion meeting with professionals in Cambodia’s legal field, having begun the initiative in winter 2019. On our 2020 trip we met with officials and scholars the pair had established ties with last year and established new connections. This is the second article about some of what I experienced on the trip.

A dispute over meaning surrounds one of Shakespeare’s most famous comedic lines, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers,” with some arguing (many attorneys among them) that it isn’t meant to be funny at all, but rather asks us to imagine a society with no defenders of the rule of law. The late Justice John Paul Stevens memorialized that argument in a 1985 Supreme Court case, writing, “Shakespeare insightfully realized that disposing of lawyers is a step in the direction of a totalitarian form of government.” The text itself is more complicated. A charlatan named Jack Cade tries to incite populist revolt by painting a utopian vision of what life would be like if he were king: “There shall be in England seven halfpenny loaves sold for a penny: the three-hooped pot; shall have ten hoops and I will make it felony to drink small beer.”

But the comically too-good-to-be-true promises take a dark turn when the ambition prompting them is revealed: “there shall be no money; all shall eat and drink on my score; and I will apparel them all in one livery, that they may agree like brothers and worship me their lord.” At that point, the line about lawyers is uttered by a character listening on, leaving the reader to decipher whether it’s another wish on an expanding list or a wry comment about the steps tyrants take in paving their way to power.

In Cambodia, the genocidal Khmer Rouge in fact targeted the educated and professional class for execution as enemies of the state. Even before the invasion of Phnom Penh and seizure of state control, the civil war following 1970’s military coup had disrupted the legal system to such an extent that it was non-functional by 1974. It was not until 1994 that the country enjoyed enough stability to take steps toward reconstructing one. In one of the meetings we had with Suon Visal, the current President of the Bar Association of the Kingdom of Cambodia, he explained one major impediment to rebuilding was that there were no attorneys in Cambodia in 1994. A generation of legal practitioners and scholars was lost, either killed or displaced. In her article, Cambodia: Building a Legal System from Scratch, law professor Dolores Donovan painted a vivid but bleak picture:

In 1975, the Khmer Rouge destroyed the Cambodian legal system. … Law books were destroyed and the buildings that housed the courts and the law school were converted to other uses. At the end of the destruction and the massacres, an estimated six to ten legal professionals remained alive in Cambodia.” ¹

In 1994, Mr. Suon had returned to the country, founded the Cambodia Defenders Project, and set about recruiting and training future judges and attorneys. When Bill Picket and Judge Coughenour first met Mr. Suon in early 2019, there were 1,400 licensed lawyers in Cambodia. On our trip in January, the total had increased to somewhere around 1,700 (varying slightly depending upon which body provided the figure). The percentage of female attorneys has also increased. Progress is being made, but over the course of our trip, I became familiar with Mr. Pickett’s comparison: Cambodia, a country with a population of 16.5 million, has 1,700 lawyers. Washington, a state with a population of 7.5 million, has 40,000 lawyers (and, according to Mr.
Pickett, needs more).

Bill Pickett and Shannon with CLEW students in their Living/Learning facility off campus; photo credit: Bandol Teav

Bill Pickett and Shannon with CLEW students in their Living/Learning facility off campus; photo credit: Bandol Teav

For the majority of Cambodians to have access to legal remedies, bar membership will need to increase exponentially. Under Mr. Suon’s leadership, legal aid programs have expanded, providing greater access to representation for those with modest means. He has also encouraged increased law school admissions for women and minorities. One program actively supporting legal training for women is based at the Royal University of Law and Economics (RULE) in Phnom Penh, one of Cambodia’s most prestigious law schools. Cambodian Legal Education for Women (CLEW), a Canadian charitable organization, provides full scholarships to young women from rural areas who commit to returning to work for two years in their provinces after graduating from RULE’s Bachelor of Law program. To date, CLEW has sponsored 60 students: 35 are current law students and five graduates have already become lawyers.

We heard about other initiatives to expand legal access in our meeting with officials of the Cambodian Human Rights Committee. President Keo Remy has established a working group of attorneys who provide legal aid and has instituted a hotline whereby citizens can receive free consultations with attorneys regarding disputes, including land claims. Land use disputes are becoming more and more prevalent as foreign money pours into Cambodia and development booms. Here, too, the dark side of another seemingly utopian promise by Jack Cade (“all the realm shall be in common”) confronts Cambodians on a daily basis.

In addition to the destruction of law books, the decimation of one-quarter of the population from 1975-1979 wiped away land titles and records. The southern port city of Sihanoukville provides myriad examples of the contemporary effects. What was not long ago a small beach town popular with backpackers, featuring rows of one-story beach stalls catering to the tourist trade, is now ground zero for a construction blitz that transformed the skyline. According to an LA Times article from fall 2019, provincial officials say “Chinese nationals own 90% of businesses, including more than 150 hotels, hundreds of restaurants, scores of massage parlors and karaoke clubs and four dozen casinos,” ² the majority of which have appeared in the last three years.

authorities dismantle stalls on otres beach

Image Credit: KPS News

The gold rush mentality is displacing Cambodians who have lived and worked on property in Sihanoukville for decades, but who have no way to prove ownership. 3 4 Judge Coughenour’s daughter-in-law and her family owned a restaurant along O’tres Beach in Sihahounkville which they operated for at least two decades. Without a system of land registration, however, they could prove nothing more than squatter’s rights. When we visited the restaurant on January 12, it, along with all of the surrounding businesses on that strip of beach, were operating but subject to demolition by the local government. Although the affected owners had organized in opposition, they knew bulldozers could arrive at any moment. Three days later they did, wiping out the livelihoods of dozens of families at O’tres. This outcome has played out repeatedly as foreign investment has transformed land values almost overnight. Cambodians unable to prove title beyond current possession have found themselves with little recourse.

The need for defenders of the rule of law is apparent everywhere.  The legal experts, officials, and scholars we met with who are determined to increase the number of licensed attorneys practicing in Cambodia, therefore expanding access to justice for all—often against the interest of the ruling elite—are doing critical work.  Judge Coughenour and Mr. Pickett hope to spotlight some of those efforts with their initiative and to generate ways of supporting them here.


Donovan, Dolores A. “Cambodia: Building a Legal System from Scratch.” The International Lawyer, vol. 27, no. 2, 1993, pp. 445–454.