The Cambodia Connection: Cooley prof aims to help law school

By Roberta M. Gubbins
Legal News

Cambodia is not often a topic of conversation among the members of the legal community in Ingham County. It is, however, a major topic for two local attorneys, Thomas M. Cooley Law School Professor Karen Truszkowski, who has professional and personal connections to the country, and Catherine Groll, currently living in Cambodia teaching at the Royal University of Law and Economics.  

One of Truszkowski’s professional associations to Cambodia is through Cooley, which hopes to develop a program to assist the law school. The Royal University, she explained, has no full time law faculty, no textbooks, and no computers.

“The other thing I’m doing is re-writing their contracts textbook,” which was written in 1997 and is “not really a textbook. Since the book was written, they have passed two new codes that have been put into place. This book,” she said, holding up a well-worn paperback bound volume “is way out of date and really not based on Cambodian Law.” 

Her plan for the book is to write it as both a textbook and a reference book on contracts.

“They don’t have anything like that over there.”

There are no books on how to write a contract, how to interpret a contract, or how to enforce it. Until recently, there were no laws and matters were settled with a handshake.

Their current civil code, which she describes as “comprehensive,” passed in 2008, was written with the help of Japan and the United States.

“It is pretty Westernized,” she said. “It looks a lot like our codes, which makes it easier to write.”

The Royal University was opened in 1957. The present program is an English based curriculum. “The law program is a bachelor degree program,” While it is possible to earn a Masters of Law, it is not a doctoral program. There is a bar examination and 70 people pass the bar each year.

“Once you graduate from the program, it is difficult to become a lawyer,” she said. “At this point there are less than a 1,000 lawyers in all of Cambodia.”

Truszkowski also has a personal connection to Cambodia. On her first trip over there she met Rottany Sy, a young man whom she came to know and has sponsored, paying for his further education. Sy’s childhood was disrupted when he was removed from his village and thrown in a ditch by the Cambodian Government, Truszkowski explained. Buddhist Monks rescued him, providing him with a place to live and a primary education. He is now a licensed tour guide.

“Tourism,” she said, “is their number one business because of Angkor Wat,” said to be the largest Hindu temple complex in the world. The site was declared by UNESCO to be one of the seven ancient wonders of the world.

Visiting Angkor Wat, she said, “is like going to see the pyramids of Egypt. It is a magnificent collection of Hindu temples, now Buddhist,” built in the early 12th century. “Part of (the movie) Tomb Raider was filmed there.”

Truszkowski, with Rottany’s help, has paid for the digging of wells for two villages. The well “really turned life around for one village. They had never had fresh water there. Now they have fresh vegetables and can have animals.”

Cambodia is very primitive, she explained. There is no running water, no electricity and no plumbing. Education is not considered important in the country.
“The culture there is that you live off the land.”

Groll, introduced to Cambodia by Truszkowski, has discovered the cultural difference between American emphasis on education and the Cambodian lack of interest.

She reports that the majority of her first faculty meeting at the school was “spent giving us detailed instructions on how to schedule make up classes for all the holidays. Since there are more holidays then there are actual class dates, this could be very interesting. There is the Royal Plowing Ceremony, the King’s Mother’s Birthday, the Water Festival Day, and the International Women Day, to name a few. It is explained that even if the holiday does not fall on a class day, the students will be absent the day before to “prepare” for the holiday, and the day after to recover.”

Groll has about fifty students in her Torts class, which meets on Wednesday and Thursday nights from 5:45 to 8:20 p.m.

“As I glance at my (class) list,” she said, “it seems I have multiple students with the same names of Chan, Chea, Phen, Pho, Ly, Lang, So, Sum and Kong. Thankfully, listed by each name is the gender designation of M or F, as you can name boys and girls the same here. There is one Rethda in there, and I decide immediately he will be my classroom assistant and take the roll.”

For more information contact her at cgroll@catherinegroll.com for her weekly updates. If you are interested in learning more about Cambodia and the rule of law there, please contact Truszkowski at truszkok@cooley.ed.