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Hope and sorrow in southeast Asia

Most people have heard of Cambodia, and most people could find this Asian country on a map.

But not many people know about the atrocities set upon the Cambodian people during the ’70s. Known as the Cambodian Genocide, this dark time in the country’s history saw the deaths of millions of people. The event has had far-reaching effects up until the present day, and its perpetrators are just now being to justice.

For whatever reason, some blame Vietnam War fatigue, the Cambodian Genocide has escaped widespread attention from a lot of Americans, especially those born after the fact.

By taking groups of ONU law students to Cambodia as part of a January Term course, law professor Kevin Hill is trying to change that.

Horror in Cambodia

Shortly after the Vietnam War, from 1975 to 1979, the Khmer Rouge regime (led by Pol Pot) carried out genocide in Cambodia. It is estimated that up to 3 million people were killed due to forced labor, torture, mass execution and malnutrition. Up to 20,000 mass graves, known as the Killing Fields, have been uncovered.

The Genocide ended when Vietnam invaded Cambodia and removed the Khmer Rouge from power. Political unrest and civil war followed for decades. A sort of peace began in February 1992 after United Nations intervention, and the country began five-year election cycles in 1993. The first trials of senior Khmer Rouge leaders did not start until 2007; many were already dead or deemed unfit to stand trial.

Hill first traveled to Cambodia during the second General Election in 1998. He acted as an observer on behalf of the United Nations, tasked with reporting whether anyone was turned away from the polls, whether everyone was freely allowed to vote, and whether the ballots were properly guarded and delivered.

In total, Hill has traveled to Cambodia six times, entranced by the pace of life and the inherent friendliness of its citizens.

“I just fell in love with the country, and then I followed the Genocide trials with great interest as they went along,” he says. “I thought it was the perfect vehicle to expose American students to a different way of looking at the world, a different legal structure, a different legal order, and mostly a different society and how law is treated in that society.”

So Hill developed his “Law, Culture, and Genocide in Southeast Asia” class. For the past two years, rather than sitting in the classroom to learn about the Cambodian Genocide, ONU law students have traveled to the source, visiting the places where it happened, talking to the people it still affects to this day.

Third-year law student Jamie Lutz made the trip this past January. “We didn’t really realize it until professor Hill pointed it out, but there’s not a lot of older people there. You realize that they’re missing a big segment of their population. Grandfathers, aunts and uncles, that whole portion of the population isn’t even there anymore.”

Touring 1,200 years of history

In Cambodia, Lutz and her fellow ONU law students learned about the Cambodian Genocide, the subsequent human rights tribunals, and the country’s attempts to recover from the tragedy. Students explored local schools, ruins, torture prisons and the Killing Fields.

If it sounds heavy, well, it is. But Hill scheduled the tour in such a way so as to gradually immerse his students into the Cambodian culture.

“I like to start with Siem Reap, because it gives the students an impression of the history of the country,” he says. “That’s where the spectacular Angkor Wat ruins are. So we spent two days going to various temples, ruins and just acclimating ourselves to the country.”

From there, the students visited a silk farm, discussed with Buddhist monks the role of law in a Buddhist country, and experienced a few touristy things such as Battambang’s famed bamboo railway.

But after that, things got much more serious.

“Up until then, you could say, ‘Oh, we’re having a nice vacation,’” Hill says. “But then we went to the S-21 prison, which is the place where 14,000 inmates walked in, and only 12 walked out.”

The students even had the opportunity to meet with one of the 12 S-21 survivors to hear his story. “S-21 still makes me cry when you see what happened there,” Hills says. “I mean, it’s like visiting Auschwitz.”

From S-21, the group visited the Killing Fields; one field, in particular, was the scene of 100,000 deaths.

The visiting ONU students found it difficult to find words to describe the experience there.

“Learning about what happened here and seeing it all, it was overwhelming,” says second-year law student Logan Clark.

“Looking at the pictures, seeing all the skulls on display, learning about what happened – it just shocks you,” agrees Lutz.

Next, the ONU group visited the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), also known the Khmer Rouge Tribunal. Located in Phnom Penh, this is where the senior leaders of the Khmer Rouge are currently being prosecuted.

“If we’re lucky, we get to meet some of the attorneys or maybe a judge,” Hill says. “For the most part, we’re happy if we get to visit the site and have somebody with knowledge explain what’s going on.”

Despite everything, hope for the future

Still, there’s much joy to be found in Cambodia amongst the lingering sorrow.

During the first trip in January 2014, Hill and his group, completely by chance, encountered a circus performance near the city of Siem Reap. But it wasn’t a circus performance in the American sense of the word.

“We were sort of skeptical, because what’s a circus going to be in Cambodia? And in fact, it was stunning,” remembers Hill. “It was not clowns and tigers and lions. It was acrobats and dancers telling a traditional Cambodian story.”

It turns out that this particular circus performance was a fundraising effort on the part of Phare Ponleu Selpak, a school in Battambang that educates Cambodian street children with an emphasis on the arts.

“It was started by four teachers in a refugee camp during the civil war,” Hill explains. “And because they were art teachers, all they taught was art. But then they got other people interested, and it started growing.”

Phare Ponleu Selpak eventually adopted a general education curriculum, but artistic practice and development is at the heart of the school’s formal education process. The Circus Department, in particular, has become internationally renowned; acrobats from across Europe come to Cambodia to train the students.

“After the circus, it turned out we were going to be in Battambang, where the school is located, so we planned to drop by,” Hill continues. “We were supposed to spend one hour there, but we ended up spending five. The ONU students played with the kids, and we got together a donation of about $400 just on the spur of the moment.”

Something about this chance encounter captured the hearts of the visiting ONU contingent, because this year, the group returned with $1,600 raised before the trip even began. In fact, visiting the school became a much-anticipated part of the itinerary.

“Before we left, I knew that going to the Phare school would be one of my favorite things that we were going to do on this trip,” says third-year law student Renee Drollette. “But I suppose I didn’t expect to get the feeling that I got from the kids. I know the kids were one of the things that touched me the most.”

In addition to the Phare Ponleu Selpak site visit, Hill arranges everything else himself. “You’ve got to plan places for the kids to stay, hotels, transportation, and visas to get into the country. A native-speaking guide had to be arranged as well as transportation within the country by bus. And all the places we visited, I had to set that up ahead of time.”

So Hill was a travel agent before the trip began, but once in Cambodia, he became chaperone, tour guide and Cambodian historian for the 26 ONU law students who went with him.

“Since there were 26 of us, there were a lot of us,” says Clark. “We all couldn’t stay within range of the tour guide to hear what he was saying; professor Hill would fill us in on what he knew, and it seemed like he knew a lot.”

The trip affected the ONU students in different ways. Many returned to Ada with altered career plans. Others learned not to take their western lifestyles for granted.

“I got to go somewhere and see people walking around without shoes on,” says Lutz. “And then we came back to the States, and I have an appreciation for the fact that everyone wears shoes here. There’s no garbage on the streets. It gives you a much greater appreciation for where we live and where we were brought up.”

“I think that after seeing this with your own eyes, you can do nothing but give back,” Drollette says.

So, one of the first things the group did upon returning to campus was to arrange another fundraiser for Phare Ponleu Selpak. This time, a wine-tasting gathering raised $1,000.

The future of ONU law in Cambodia

The next step is more of the same. Hill plans to teach this class, and make this trip, every year until he retires. It’s an amazing endeavor, one that his students hope will be appreciated by people outside the law school.

“I don’t know what words I can use to do justice for the things that professor Hill has done for all of his students,” says Drollette. “I think he’s the type of professor they make movies about. He’s extremely brilliant; he could have been our tour guide. That is how informed he was about this country and its laws.”

As informed as he is, Hill still cannot seem to reconcile what allowed the Genocide to happen in the first place.

“I love Cambodia. I like the people, the pace, the friendliness. In Cambodia, they’re very laid back,” he says. “That’s why I don’t understand the Genocide. You meet the people, and you don’t understand how these people could have done that.”

“It’s really a country that functions more on customary law than outright law,” he continues. “I mean, people know what they’re supposed to do, and they behave themselves. Until it all falls apart.”