A disconcerting silence in Cambodia by Asia Online Time

Posted by: | Posted on: August 15, 2012

Apart from the technological barriers and oppression, there is a different value system informing behavior here, and this extends to media and publishing: dissent, criticism and confrontation are discouraged at a cultural level, not only by government. Self-censorship is rife because community values still rule over individuals’, and communal harmony over personal liberty and gain. Even when there is no direct threat, youth will often keep their thoughts to themselves in the presence of elders, and refrain from criticism among their peers, for fear of causing offence.

All told, this is an environment where intelligent, progressive and liberal debate is unlikely to flourish unless a few fundamental prerequisite human rights are established and protected, starting with freedom of thought.

SPEAKING FREELY
A disconcerting silence in Cambodia
By Ryan Paine
http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Southeast_Asia/NH16Ae01.html

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

When I arrived in Phnom Penh on the first night of Khmer New Year, I expected I would find more than a few small fireworks and a Ferris wheel. Assuming it was temporary, set up for the festivities, I had to get on it before it disappeared or fell down. In the end I didn’t rush because I found out it’s permanent. When I did finally have a ride, it sucked: too slow, only one revolution, and covered in garish advertising. I did win a toy that night though.

I also expected to find more media and publishing when I arrived here to work with a literary association, but it turns out the scene here is much like the streets were that night: quiet, and still quite dangerous. There was no Ferris wheel though – no place to go for a concise overview of modern Cambodian literature.

Of course I knew I was coming to work in a media industry where freedom of expression is not taken for granted the way it is at home in Australia. However, I hadn’t expected the gaping holes in publishing infrastructure created as a result of this freedom being so limited. It’s a self-perpetuating situation that leaves a disconcerting silence in the capital, but also a huge opportunity for the development of literary literacy and the improvement of the human condition this promotes.

There is actually a lot going on, despite the undeveloped publishing sector and the fact print publishing was introduced here as late as 1890, by the French, and only for government publications. The literary association I was working for is the capital’s leading youth and emerging writers’ association, so I was right in the thick of it. But still I had to dig deep by actively developing work with writers I met. The best way to access youth literature here is to go directly to the source.

Otherwise, Sipar Books is perhaps the biggest operation, publishing children’s books and distributing them throughout the country in a mobile library called a Bibliobus. There’s a comics publisher here, Our Books. TEDx Phnom Penh has been running here for a couple of years now. Liberty Association is an eBook-only publisher of Khmer fiction with English translations, free to read. And of course there is the thriving trade in pirated, photocopied books (though these are mostly English-language titles, catering to travellers and expatriates), and a small but strident self-publishing scene.

That any of this is going on at all is a wonder, considering the country’s recent history and the state of an infrastructure where it is even difficult to establish a “zine” culture because the postal service is unreliable, corrupt and underdeveloped. Catching a train here would be easier than setting up a postal network for your zine publishing. No one knows how the street numbers work either – a total mystery.

Book, magazine and newspaper distribution is hampered by the same problems. Plus, there are small print houses everywhere, but printing costs remain high, and there is a shortage of reliably dry storage facilities, which means print runs are usually as small as a few hundred copies, so unit costs are high, and margins low.

Rudimentary copyright law exists, but is neither enforced nor respected, and piracy is rampant, undermining writers’ abilities to earn income from sales. There are few writers’ subsidies or awards with significant prize money, few catalogues of recent works, and almost no culture of reviewing, criticism or marketing to inform readers of new works on the market. 

Prolonged war and the decimation of the intellectual community had obliterated a habit of reading for leisure or for improving knowledge, but a market is emerging now, while the culture of reading remains inhibited by various social and economic factors, starting with rock-bottom literacy rates and extreme poverty: books are expensive, there are few well-stocked libraries, and the majority of Cambodians are poor, so books are a luxury commodity that few have the time or money to indulge in.

As for a culture of writing: there is only one media and communications degree run out of the royal university; creative writing is not taught in schools; there are few writers’ competitions to reward writers, and few festivals or conferences to facilitate the distribution of shared knowledge and experience; there are few writers’ associations, perhaps because assembly is discouraged and sometimes violently suppressed; drafting workshops are almost non-existent, and the absence of a review culture means there is a lack of communal peer-review.

Online, Internet penetration rose to 3.1% in 2011 according to Internet World Stats, doubling from 2010 when Cambodia came in at about 196 of 220 on the UN’s International Telecommunication Union’s list of countries by highest Internet penetration. 

Only around 500,000 of Cambodia’s 14 million population are on Facebook, and far less are on Twitter, one of the few social networks that have actually been useful in empowering oppressed people’s freedom of expression. I haven’t found many regularly active Khmer bloggers, but there are enough to lend hope to the future of public debate here.

There are Blue Lady Blog and Khmer Bird, who are writing about things like a new youth talk show on Khmer Live TV (TVK). Television is a popular outlet for Khmer youth, and enjoys widespread accessibility – a common site in rural Cambodia is a restaurant shed with the full chairs all rotated toward the TV news.
Apart from the technological barriers and oppression, there is a different value system informing behavior here, and this extends to media and publishing: dissent, criticism and confrontation are discouraged at a cultural level, not only by government. Self-censorship is rife because community values still rule over individuals’, and communal harmony over personal liberty and gain. Even when there is no direct threat, youth will often keep their thoughts to themselves in the presence of elders, and refrain from criticism among their peers, for fear of causing offence. 

All told, this is an environment where intelligent, progressive and liberal debate is unlikely to flourish unless a few fundamental prerequisite human rights are established and protected, starting with freedom of thought. 

Western economic self-interest has been introduced and embraced and the rich are getting richer, but interest in freedom of thought and the idea of speaking out against human-rights violations has not stuck. Protest was rare, but is increasing taking place over environmental concerns, illegal economic land concessions, human trafficking and the exploitation of factory workers.

The West has a lot to answer for here. If colonial Western countries like France insist on introducing such potentially corrosive Western values as self-interest to the East, we have a duty to ensure that all the protective values come over as well: free trade must come with free thought, expression, assembly, religion, and all those good freedoms which make it worthwhile having a self to be interested in. The French brought baguettes and nihilism, but seem to have left egalitarianism behind. 

There is hope for this in Cambodia, though: the country’s youth. Pen Samitthy, president of the Club of Cambodian Journalists, said the recent increase in Internet penetration is “ending the monopoly over information by media companies”. 

I recently published an essay about how youth are the only hope for the stuffy culture of public debate in Australia. It was a sprawly sort of essay about how youth lack a voice in Australia, which seems kind of petty now, after what I’ve seen here. If Australia has a problem with ideological concentration in its debate, at least it has a culture of debate at all and people don’t get killed for demanding their rights be met. At least, not so much anymore.

Another difference between Australia and Cambodia is a bittersweet and dichotomous statistic – in Cambodia, around 60% of the population is aged under 20, compared to Australia’s 20% under 15. Bitter, because these under-20s are the baby-boomer generation of Cambodia’s decimated intellectual community targeted by the Khmer Rouge in the 70s. Sweet, because if we can encourage these youth to express themselves here we will have a large, mighty force against the older incumbent ideologues.

As the Publishing in Cambodia report says, “The ‘baby boom’ following 1979 has created a burgeoning student-age population, providing a basis of hope for a market that needs to and perhaps wants to read.” As we know, someone really smart once said, “A well-read populace is the best defense against tyranny.”

For now, the tools and mechanisms of Western economics are in the hands of an older elite, and what we’re seeing is approximations of Western progress attempted by nations of Eastern-minded people. There are fundamental disparities between Western thought and the Eastern mindset, and these cause ideological and infrastructural train wrecks that are exemplified by the dodgem-car chaos of the roads.

We need to give these tools (of thought and expression) to the youth, and the freedom to use them as prerequisite rights for the establishment of others. At my literary firm it was thrilling to see the excitement in the young writers when we showed them new techniques for structuring and expressing their ideas. 

As they feel more confident about expressing themselves, we are seeing a community of young people here begin to assemble and launch a new generation of Cambodian thought.

If only freedom of assembly were allowed and freedom of thought were encouraged by the country’s elders – surely then we would see a hefty part of the population coming round to the conclusion that institutionalized violence and oppression advancing private commercial interests is really not cool.

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online’s regular contributors. 

Ryan Paine is an Asialink writer in residence and works for the Nou Hach Literary Association in Phnom Penh

(Copyright 2012 Ryan Paine.)