When it comes to seniority on the Cambodian expat circuit, I consider myself still a rookie, several pegs down the totem pole from some of the grizzled veterans who have made their bones in the Kingdom of Wonder over many years.
I made my debut in January 2012 having just completed graduate school and seeking to gain some practical experience as an aspiring foreign affairs writer…or something like that. I didn’t really have a plan set-in-stone but I did know I wanted to travel to Southeast Asia, to write about the politics of the region, and the rest I would figure out once I got there. I recall that I picked Cambodia over Thailand–where I lived for a couple of months a few years prior because of the ease of the visa process.
My second day in Phnom Penh I accepted the offer from a tuk tuk driver to be chauffeured around the capital seeing this pagoda or that one and, if the impertinent dullard had had his way, the shooting range and killing fields as well. I missed the significance of most of the landmarks during that initial drive due to a combination of jetlag and the general disorientation of culture shock, but one sight in particular did not sneak by me.
As we crawled north on St. 51 and approached Wat Phnom, milling about in the scorching heat in front of the U.S. embassy were a couple of dozen Cambodians, many armed with placards, vehemently remonstrating with some official looking security personnel.
I stepped out of the shaded interior of the tuk tuk and into the oppressive heat to see what the story was. They were members of some 300 families who had been forcibly evicted from their homes in Phnom Penh’s Borei Keila district on January 3rd. Their homes were bulldozed to make way for corporate development. When I asked a man, through my driver, why they were camped outside the American embassy, he silenced me with a fluttering gesturing and murmured in Khmer, “I have nowhere else to go.”
Over the years, Prime Minister Hun Sen has authorized the distribution of economic land concessions to politically connected elites, and complicit corporations and individuals have carried out the heist with the aplomb of a woman playing pool at the Walkabout. Entire villages have been privatized for peanuts; resistance is typically met with violence.
Land grabbing became the first issue I began writing about whilst establishing myself in Cambodia. I started stringing for a few mastheads and felt it was at the very least an antecedent for what I was trying to accomplish professionally. My mother was positively aghast at the idea of her eldest child criticizing the ruling regime from inside the country. “Please come home” was–and still is, when I head back to the Kingdom every year–a common refrain she would shout from half a world away during our frequent Skype talks. “Remember where you are and remember what governments in ‘these’ countries do to people who speak out,” she told me last summer during the National Assembly election, quite unruffled from my casual reminder of the American government’s reaction to the Edward Snowden affair.
As chance would have it, that first week in Phnom Penh I met a young woman at a gym on St. 95 who would end up personifying the trepidation which many journalists come to feel during their time in Cambodia with lugubrious inevitability. Her name was Olesia Plokhii, and she told me she worked at The Cambodia Daily. We chatted for a bit on the treadmill about New York (she was Canadian but also spent time in my home state), living in Cambodia, and working for the Daily. She invited me to come out to Cantina on the Riverside that Thursday night where all the Western journalists congregate. It slipped my mind, however, and I thought no more of it.
But in late April of that year, environmental activist Chut Wutty was gunned down in Koh Kong while attempting to expose a practice of illegal logging. Ms. Plokhii, along with a Khmer journalist from the Daily Phorn Bopha, had accompanied him to the site, and the two writers were left in a rather dicey situation with a handful of capricious military policemen. After she left the country, Ms. Plokhii wrote about that night, including about how the policemen discussed killing and raping the two women in the forest.
That said, foreign scribes tend to have a bit more latitude than their local counterparts. There are certain inviolable rules to international relations which foreigners can rely on for a certain degree of legal protection. For Khmer journalists, however, the dire consequences for castigating the ruling regime beyond the acceptable threshold can be manifested in employment termination, lengthy prison sentences, or even executions.
Mam Sonando, an independent radio host and an outspoken critic of the land grabbing doctrine was one such commentator who was made an example of. He was arrested in July 2012 in the weeks following a police raid on demonstrators in Kratie, which left a 14-year old girl dead, and was charged with inciting a secessionist rebellion against Hun Sen’s government. Mr. Sonando, a 70-year old at the time of his excoriation, was sentenced to 20 years in prison. The international outrage and condemnation in the weeks and months following the adjudication, including from U.S. President Barack Obama, eventually caused the case to be overturned.
In September that same year, another journalist who highlighted the government’s corruption and negligence with respect to the logging issue was found hacked to death with an axe and stuffed into the trunk of his car. In his last article, Hang Serei Oudom of the Vorakchun Khmer Daily newspaper had “accused the son of a military police commander of smuggling logs in military-plated vehicles and extorting money from people who were legally transporting wood.”
Similar stories have been detailed in the nearly two years since, and Cambodia’s press freedom ranks 144th out of 179 countries according to the 2014 World Press Freedom Index. Within the past several months, a number of journalists covering opposition protests were attacked by security forces in the capital’s Daun Penh district, and the government has publicly accused the foreign media’s coverage of striking garment strike workers as unbalanced. Twelve journalists have been killed over the past 2 decades of “democracy,” the most recent casualty beaten to death this past February after unmasking an illegal fishing operation in Kampong Chhnang.
However, you’d be mistaken for thinking a sense of fatalism would inexorably creep into the consciousness of current and future generations of journalists in the country. When a thin-skinned government spokesman’s recent university lecture veered into the realm of Orwellian doublethink, the minister’s not-so-subtle intimidation tactics only served to embolden his young audience on social media platforms afterwards.
That is at least cause for a little optimism, but still there are others who are more reticent when reporting in Cambodia. “Repression from the government, physical or emotional, is always in the back of your mind,” a Khmer photographer told me last year.
Until that apprehension is overcome on a national level, Cambodia’s dubious track record on press freedoms will remain just that.