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.
A disconcerting silence in Cambodia
By Ryan Paine
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.
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