With politics and human rights, expats have a problem

eople protest the detention of four human rights workers and an election official on Monday morning near Phnom Penh's Prey Sar prison. Source: Phnom Penh Post

A few activists protest the detention of four human rights workers and an election official on Monday morning near Phnom Penh’s Prey Sar prison. Source: Phnom Penh Post

It is a debate that has persisted since long before I started making Cambodia my home: What should expats do or say when they object to the actions of a foreign government that permits them to live in its country?

The question surfaced again here in Cambodia when a Facebook “friend” posted a story that has dominated the three English-language dailies for days.

A subsequent report in the Phnom Penh Post on Wednesday centered on a speech in which the prime minister said he might seek to have five jailed Cambodians forgiven for their entanglement in what has been dubbed a sex scandal concerning the acting president of a political party opposed to his ruling one.  Hun Sen’s remarks followed Monday’s arrest of civil rights activists essentially for wearing black shirts as they headed to a demonstration in Phnom Penh to call attention to their plight.

If civil society groups hold back during legal proceedings, suggested the price minister, the arrested individuals could be released from custody on one condition.  He said: 

If you are gentle, I will think about it. If you are arrogant, I will think about that, too.

A German and a Swiss adviser to the Licadho human rights organization were detained along with six others on their way to Monday’s planned demonstration site at Prey Sar prison, two kilometers from where the police took them into custody.  The foreigners, just them, were transported directly to the immigration department’s headquarters, where they were questioned for hours until their release in the evening.  The offices are opposite Phnom Penh’s airport, and the implied threat was inescapable then and, of course, now.

Seventy-seven civil society organizations endorsed a Licadho statement condemning the government’s actions.  They are, I think understandably, alarmed by an accumulation of abusive actions that run counter to the 1991 Paris Peace Agreements.  In a dispiriting analysis in today’s Phnom Penh Post, respected journalist Sebastian Strangio details the changed political atmosphere.

Activists had called for the wearing of black shirts every Monday in protest against the jailing since May 2 of the five human rights officials stemming from the convoluted sex scandal, which centers on an alleged mistress of Kem Sokha, acting president of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).  (The CNRP nearly outperformed the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) in the last national election.)  The government has been accused of manufacturing the charges ensuing from the purported scandal.

In his post the other day, my Facebook friend Jim mused as follows:

If I wear a black shirt on a Monday, I might get arrested here in Cambodia.

This is unfortunate, because half of my shirts are black. They were green originally, but after they became spotted in a bleach mishap, I dyed them black. No other color would effectively hide their spots.

Now, wearing these shirts could be construed as a political statement, which could get me kicked out the country. Half of my wardrobe has become a political statement whether I agree with it or not.

I had to respond:

Although I’m pretty sure you’re being ironic about your black shirts, the repression is most troubling. I did intentionally don black yesterday in solidarity with demonstrators, I also stayed far away. I take seriously the possibility of deportation otherwise.

Came Jim’s riposte:

I am guest in this country. It behooves me to obey it’s laws and customs, even if I don’t agree with them. If I find myself unable to adapt myself to Cambodia, I should go home. It is not reasonable for me to expect that Cambodia should adapt itself to me.

What he said troubled me, and the foundation of my concern has to do with my objection to human rights abuses around the world.  I wrote the following:

That’s fine in theory. But if the rule of law is ignored and laws are interpreted so that a government can preserve itself, how do you know which laws to obey? Do you speak freely about any concerns; I, for one, think it best to choose my words carefully as I do now. Yes, I could leave for another country, but I happen to believe that human rights abuses around the world are worth heeding.

His reply ended our public discussion on Facebook, admittedly not the best vehicle for reasoned dialog:

I happily bitch and moan about the politics, culture, and economics of the USA and Australia, because I am a citizen of those counties. I have the right and responsibility. And I can’t help but laugh and cry at Venezuela (for example), as it sinks into the inevitable morass of it socialist policies.

But…Cambodia? I observe, but I try not to criticize. I am a *guest* in this country. One does not criticize the hosts’ drapes.

I get his point, but I don’t know that inviting reader’s attention to troubling practices where I live, yes, as a guest is unwarranted.  So, I continue to refer and carefully write about them via Twitter, Facebook and this blog.

As an American, I naturally hold dear the rights of free speech and assembly along with others delineated in the U.N’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, too often honored in its breach here and elsewhere.  Indeed, one important reason that I became a journalist was to try and accomplish some kind of good (though I certainly fell short of my grandiose hopes of decades ago).

Although the English-language press in Cambodia regularly criticizes the government with impunity, I have decided that it is prudent to be circumspect publicly.  That is because I am intimidated.  I am in no hurry to have to give up my overseas home, where I have lived since December 2013.

I would rather not sound judgmental, but what persuasive defense can we have for failing to bear witness to human rights abuses around the world or for turning a blind eye to them and closing our mouths about them in our adopted countries?

If we fall short either because of our self-interest or our desire to be polite, is that a morally acceptable position to assume?  Perhaps so, I suppose, for some and not others.  In other words, maybe the question has to be a personal one.  Or am I trying to have it both ways?

I’ve made my choice, that is, to speak softly and, arguably, act safely.  I’ll don a black T-shirt again on Monday as I head out for my afternoon coffee, a gesture that hardly could be smaller. It is the least I can do.  But it felt good this week and as long as it keeps feeling good, I’ll opt for black.

To my mind, how much to say and do is the expat’s dilemma, and coming to terms with it never will be easy.

E-mail: malcolmncarter@gmail.com

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