Last night I was invited to watch the filming of a short horror / thriller film on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. During my short stay in the capital, I had the fortune of befriending some incredible artists with beautiful souls. One of them was the main actor for the film and the other a screenwriter by profession who had agreed to sponsor her friend's project.
When I arrived at the set (a market that was closed for the evening) that evening, the crew were taking a short break after a full day's filming. I was introduced to everyone and spent some time looking around the set. Just when they were getting ready to start shooting again, one of the crew gets a call. Chatter amongst the crew followed, which I couldn't understand as they spoke in Khmer, the language of Cambodia. My screenwriter friend explained that due to a political situation, gatherings of 10 or more had been banned and that we might risk getting arrested if we all stayed to film and got caught. We would be split into two groups, with only those absolutely necessary to shooting remaining on set and everyone else going to a nearby house until needed.
Before we had to disperse. One of the film crew has family in journalism so I think they thought it was better to be safe than sorry.
There my friend explained that the government were preparing to dissolve the main opposition party, ahead of the upcoming elections in 2018. The opposition party had performed unexpectedly well during the last elections, commanding a large minority. As a precaution against a public backlash at the blatant oppression of democracy, the government had implemented the ban on large gatherings of people.
Contrasting images of freedom in Cambodia
So far on the trip in Cambodia I had been struck by the lack of enforced rules. Or rather, people's flexibility towards them. For example, one night I rode on the back of a motorbike with two people sitting in front me me. I was told that this was illegal but also many people did it anyway. On another night, Benz (my Couchsurfing host in Phnom Penh) told me that both driver and passenger had to wear helmets while riding on a scooter. Yet I'd hardly seen anyone following this rule. Traffic lights seemed at times more like guidelines. Driving after drinking was commonplace.
(Note: please don't get me wrong, I'm not here passing judgement through my own western eyes on what people do and don't here in Cambodia. Rather, I'm just noticing people's flexibility towards rules - a kind of freedom, if you will. I also notice that all the examples above are traffic-related!)
Yet the political situation that I was made aware of that night reminded me that the people of Cambodia are not so free. Sure, people could complain about the government, but not too loudly, not too often and not if you got too much attention from people.
I was told of reported gunning down of political opponents if they got too troublesome or influential. Journalists were often targeted through intimidation or even physical attacks, with a photo showing up online of one who'd been beaten up earlier in the day. On further research, I learned a bit more about Cambodia's prime minister Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge member and who boasts one of the longest prime ministerships in the world.
It contrasted with a very modern ad entrepreneurial Cambodia that I'd been exposed to so far. Sure, I knew it remained a relatively conservative country, but I'd met people pushing for progress. Derek, who runs a Khmer-American news site. Benz, working for an organisation that is entirely dedicated to play-ducation (education through play, a relatively new concept in Cambodia I'm told). Chhanita the talented screenwriter, whose dream is to write an erotic film in a country where such topics are taboo. The clubs, bars and the "happy pizza" restaurants openly selling cannabis-topped pizzas that represented "free" attitudes I'd seen so far. And yet... politically the country is not free.
What freedoms are we given and what freedoms do they cost?
That evening, over conversations with the benched crew and my hostel mates from Japan and Taiwan, I reflected on this contrast. I wondered out aloud to what extent people in power give the rest of us just enough freedom (sometimes perceived, sometimes real) in certain areas of our lives so that we become less focused on the freedoms that are not made available to us.
In the case of Cambodia, I saw an environment ripe for entrepreneurial and creative endeavours. The middle class is getting larger as general incomes rise. Yet the lack of political freedom remains. Writing this, I question whether there are parallels with China, who has embraced similar values of economic growth through capitalist activity. I also question which is more important, individual freedoms that impact day to day living (food on the table) or the individual / collective freedom to determine your own government?
I suspect that this is not an isolated case in Cambodia (or China, Hong Kong etc) and that the same truth holds much closer to home. In the UK (and the "West"), we do enjoy much greater freedom in many areas of our lives, especially political freedom. At the same time, I wonder if the people that really hold power are similarly untouchable, directing our lives in the same way as authoritarian regimes elsewhere in the world. I wonder how much goes on behind the scenes - that those in power here have just had longer to perfect a more subtle approach, away from the public eye.
One of the filming crew commented that yes, this kind of stuff happens. Those who express dissent too effectively are silenced in Cambodia, through imprisonment or worse, but that this was the same as everywhere else. The form differs but the nature is universal.
This topic reminds me of the I'm In workshops that I helped to run back in London - 'How to turn your frustrations into action'. At the workshop, many of the participants felt that there were problems in society so ingrained that we couldn't do anything about it. As I explained in this post, the first step to taking action is the specific identification of the problem.
It's not so difficult to notice the freedoms that we enjoy, wherever we may be based, if we spend some time reflecting on it. My follow up questions tonight are these:
What freedoms might have we traded in to enjoy them?
Is it worth it?
If not, what can we do about it?