In Cambodia, as in many countries across Asia, there is a long tradition of mediation. Disputes are traditionally resolved by negotiation and compromise, rather than through an adversarial legal process. Respected elders, Buddhist monks, and local authorities at the village and commune levels, have historically worked to resolve disputes outside the judicial system.
The traditional conflict management system used by Cambodian villagers to resolve daily disputes is a process known in Khmer as somrohsomruel and has ancient roots in Khmer society. Under this system, a preference for avoiding disclosure of problems led to an attempt to settle matters individually, or with the help of close relatives or neighbors, before calling on an independent third party to resolve a dispute through mediation.
This traditional mediation process usually began at the village level. Only when the dispute was not resolved would it move up a hierarchical ladder, first to the commune, and then to the police, district or court. Although procedures varied, depending on the locality, the basic framework and its key steps, sequence of events and the individuals involved followed a general pattern: When one or both parties demanded mediation, a village chief would arrange a meeting. The parties were then summoned to the chief’s house or to the site of the dispute. Some village chiefs would agree to the presence of elders and family members.
The chief would then ask the parties to provide their side of the story. He might even ask other people to clarify the situation. The chief would then try to calm things down and would either ask both parties to find a mutually satisfying solution, or impose his decision upon them. There were no regulated dispute management procedures to speak of. Each chief had a personal method for resolution, based on individual experience and knowledge.
Mediation in Cambodia today
The model of mediation developing in Cambodia today includes aspects of the traditional model, and incorporates the mediation experience of commune dispute resolution committees, with a specific focus on appropriate settlement mechanisms for local practices. For example, small civil disputes involving issues, such as debts, contracts, land borders, farms and slander may be mediated at the local commune council level through the government’s Justice Service Centers (JSC).
The Ministry of Justice’s Mediation and Local Justice Department, in collaboration with non-governmental organizations, such as the Cambodian Center for Mediation (CCM), trains JSC officials in the use of modern mediation methods and techniques. This training builds JSC officials’ mediation capacity, as well as educates participants about the role of mediation in the legal system. Ultimately, the goal is to establish a culture of mediation across the country, and improve access to justice for Cambodian citizens, through the coordination of formal and non-formal mediation processes.
By Savath Meas, Senior Fellow-Cambodia, Weinstein International Foundation