News about unrest often seems worse from afar

Pad Thai and tea for lunch after a tumultuous weekend.

Pad Thai and tea — yes, tea — for lunch on Monday following the weekend’s violence and continued arrests.

It happens that I was in Suriname’s jungle decades ago researching a travel story and waiting for a commercial flight back to the capital.

After my days in a dugout canoe bearing me and a photographer down a river and my nights sleeping in hammocks in shelters that consisted of little more than thatched roofs and swooping bats, I was more than ready to escape those hardships.

We waited and waited for a small airplane that mysteriously failed to appear.

No seemed to know what was going on for a couple of days until those on our flight finally learned — was it from a radio broadcast someone had monitored? — that the nation was in the grips of a coup. 

When the airplane arrived and got us back to Paramaribo, the coup (which proved to be bloodless) was still under way and international communication in either direction was impossible.  My parents and friends were frantic, calling the U.S. State Department and unable to obtain any information about my situation.  I, in turn, couldn’t reach them.

Had they known that I had easily made my way to a luxury hotel, they could have relaxed. There, I set myself up poolside, sipping exotic cocktails and having the pleasure of typing my first draft prior to my exit from the country.  I was delayed only a matter of days, and my departure could not have been more routine.

If you’ve followed the latest news from Cambodia, then you may be thinking that I’ve made a terrible mistake by moving to Phnom Penh.  You may be concerned about my safety.

Well, don’t worry.

Aside from my thoughts about living in a state that has lost its patience with dissenters and my sympathy for their position, my life here remains barely changed following an outbreak of violence.  The only personal impact so far has been my avoidance of areas where there is a strong police or military presence at a time when free assembly has been outlawed.

I confess to being not a little embarrassed by the comforts I continue to enjoy, such as my lunch shown above, especially in a country where so much of the population is malnourished.

You may be asking yourself how I could have moved to and remain in such a place, thereby implicitly supporting the government’s activities and threats to democracy throughout Asia.  It is a fair question.  To strong critics, my defense doubtless will be perceived as weak.

What I can say is that I remember the debates from years past about the wisdom and moral justification of visiting a host of countries where human rights were or still are constrained. South Africa and the former Soviet Union were high on the list a while back; now, you might add Cuba, Vietnam, Russia once again and many other nations that will come to mind.

Millions of tourists did travel to many of those countries.  I did and have done so rather recently.  It is a personal choice between me and my conscience.

The half dozen or so Cambodians and expats with whom I’ve chatted today believe the opposition has been beaten into submission for the time being.  As for me, I tend to agree: I have high hopes for the end of violence until the next election, in 2018.

Life goes on.



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