Lyma Nguyen

Lyma Nguyen2022-08-18T10:33:17+10:00

Refugee, President of Amnesty at Brigidine, Human Rights Lawyer working in Cambodia and the Northern Territory

Extract from Awards and Acknowledgement Evening Speech Oct 2017

What a great honour, privilege and pleasure it was, to be invited to Brigidine College’s Award Evening 2017. When I was first approached to speak at the function, I was incredulous – I thought, “what a random blast from the past!”

But I was also excited at the thought of coming back – of the prospect of taking a walk down memory lane – and, of looking at the future. When I say, “looking at the future”, I’m literally referring to students. Cliched as it sounds – it is true – they are the future leaders; and future agents of change and influence.

Brigidine College is a place where I’ve had some of the most memorable times of my life. Some of my memories are as clear as though 1999 were yesterday. The closest friendships I’ve maintained are those formed at Brigidine.

The theme at Brigidine in 2017 was “Courage to…[Be]”. I thought, “I would make that the theme of my speech.

In my endeavour to define “courage”, I reflected that courage is often found in the most unusual of places. But one must get to that place first. Or perhaps it is courage that leads a person to that place.

Time at Brigidine

My passion for working with human rights formed at a young age. It crystallised when I became President of Amnesty International at Brigidine College. I always felt a great pull towards the ideals that Amnesty stood for: human rights, freedom, courage, and respect for human dignity.

On reflection, perhaps there is no courage greater than the courage of a person who has left everything that they know behind, to travel to distant shores, in circumstances of extreme danger, in pursuit of freedom.

I am very proud to hear that Brigidine College – in living out the Brigidine sisters’ values of compassion, love, gratitude, justice and service – has actively fundraised for asylum seeker support projects. This is a courageous thing to do – particularly in a political environment where “turning back the boats”, “national sovereignty” and “border control” means that, as a country, Australia is putting up fences rather than building bridges for those most in need.

I was born into a refugee situation – so I may be biased – but I have always considered that refugees are the very kind of people that one would want to build a country – they are the very people who have the courage to leave everything they know for a life unknown – and to have the drive and motivation to overcome extraordinary adversities for a better future.

I have never forgotten who I am, and where I came from. Indeed, my name was the result of a misunderstanding – a call-sign – lost in translation, and nothing less! And I feel that I came from nothing, to become something.

During the time that I was President of Amnesty at Brigidine, Mr Schlenker – probably unbeknownst to himself – was an inspiration. I remember conducting the lunch-time letter writing campaigns for prisoners of conscience; for offenders facing the death penalty; requesting of governments to exercise democracy; and hoping that our efforts would mean that even a single prisoner, could be freed.

I remember when the independence ballot in East Timor took place in 1999. During an exam period, I had decided to study rather than hold the usual lunch time letter writing session. Then the massacres occurred. I felt an incredible sense of guilt. Probably over-drastically, I felt I had let the people of East Timor down. I said to Mr Schlenker, “Perhaps if we had held that letter writing campaign, this would not have happened.”

Mr Schlenker very wisely responded, “If you had pressured a government who was not going to be moved, they might have reacted worse.” I had never thought of this perspective.

Career Lessons

One important lesson I have learnt in my career so far is that, in exercising one’s freedom, one never feels quite ready to do anything that is of any worth. But you will never know your limitations and your capabilities, unless you do it. You just have to take a leap of faith. That is courage.

When I was first started working with genocide victims, I was 26. When I first started representing clients in Cambodia’s internationalised court, I was 27 but I looked 17. I found myself amongst QCs, silks from London, who had written legal texts on international law, French and German lawyers with 25 or 30 years’ experience. And having only been admitted as a lawyer a few years earlier, I did not feel that I was experienced enough to take on the challenge of representing a class action in such an extraordinary international case.

But I did my very best – and, as it turned out, I was the type of lawyer that my clients needed. My clients were the ethnic Vietnamese minority, living in floating villages on the Tonle Sap River in Cambodia. They were victims of Pol Pot’s genocide, and had experienced a range of crimes against humanity and war crimes inflicted upon the group by the regime in the 1970s. They didn’t need a QC – they didn’t need someone with 25 years legal experience in a country where almost every judge and lawyer had been eliminated because they were part of the intelligentsia – they needed someone who could speak their language, someone who was independent from the government who they could trust to tell their stories to; someone who cared sufficiently to act in their best interests in a very politically charged and sensitive case; and simply, someone who would turn up. I became their international counsel.

During my work, I went from conducting outreach in remote victim communities – to submitting their stories at the court – to appealing judicial decisions adverse to their interests – to preparing my clients to give evidence at the trial. A number of my clients – all of whom are elderly – passed away before having their day in court. However, a couple of clients were able to give evidence about mass executions of their families, and their deportation to Vietnam. Those who died, passed, knowing that they had been given a voice.

At that time, everyone thought the tribunal would operate for only three years. How wrong they were! The trial has continued to this day, almost a decade later, and we now await the Trial Chambers’ judgment for mass and historic crimes in Cambodia. In a sense, I was thrown into the work at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia. But on reflection, I was thrown into it because I chose it.

Likewise, when I was called to the Northern Territory Bar in 2014, I had worked as a Commonwealth prosecutor for seven years. But I never really felt ready for the independent bar.

Advice to Young Women

We, as women, I find have a tendency to downplay our own abilities. You imagine barristers as specialists with 20 or 30 years behind them. The image that comes up is usually an older, greying and, rather corpulent gentleman, who is perhaps slightly aggressive in manner, but effective in court. Not only did I look 20, I didn’t have 20 years’ experience behind me, and being a woman who is quite petite did not really help. However, with some encouragement from my Head of my Chambers, I took one of the greatest leaps of my life.

Each and every one of us face all manner of opportunities in our futures. My message is to never undermine yourself by thinking you are not ready. Or rather, never choose not to do something because you feel you are not ready. It’s sometimes more important to just do it, than to feel ready for it. But you’ve got to be ready to be thrown into it. And that takes courage. That is also simply the adventure of life.

Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.

Winston Churchill

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