Yesterday was desolate for the promise of a future of democracy in Cambodia. The esteemed and highly respected Cambodia Daily newspaper was forced to close its doors as a result of government crackdowns on free press and free speech. For the past 24 years, the Cambodia Daily, an American family-owned, independent newspaper, has provided the people of Cambodia with honest, unbiased news, “without fear or favor.” Additionally, the paper has provided young aspiring Cambodian reporters and writers with the invaluable opportunity to gain genuine journalistic experience. There was a lot of goodness in this little paper, and it’s truly a shame to see it go.
Hun Sen, the Prime Minister of Cambodia, has been in power for over 36 years, making him one of the longest serving leaders in history. Opposition has never been a problem for Hun Sen, as political activists and opposition party officials are regularly silenced by arrest, journalists have a reputation of being murdered, and protests are historically met with explosions. But July 2018 brings another election, and for the first time, the Cambodia National Rescue Party poses a legitimate threat against Hun Sen and the CPP’s power.
In order to ensure that the citizens are not receiving any anti-democratic rhetoric from media, Hun Sen has shut down over 20 radio stations and an independent newspaper, and forced foreign NGOs focused on democracy out of the country.
The CPP’s latest act was serious enough to grab the attention of the New York Times. Over the weekend, hundreds of Hun Sen’s armed police officers raided the home of the president of the opposition party in the middle of the night. His initial whereabouts were unclear, and it was later confirmed that he was arrested for “treason” based on a speech he delivered years ago.
And just last week, a woman was arrested for posting an anti-government comment on Facebook.
Morale was low yesterday. Fundamental human rights are being undermined. People want change, but have no platform on which to get there. Fear dominates.
I am not familiar with the practice of holding my tongue. When I don’t agree with something, I speak up and I protest. I want so badly to share that passion with my kids. So, it breaks my heart to come into work every day to my scared, confused, sad, funny, caring, and intelligent students, and to see that they are essentially powerless in their country.
How do we carry on with this cloud hanging over our heads? My unsettled stomach is somewhat consoled by last week’s work at TGC…
Over the past two weeks, we conducted home visits for all the students. It was fascinating to make connections between the students with whom I have built fast relationships, and their home lives. Most of the homes we visited acted merely as shelters from the elements: tin roofs and plywood walls raised up on branches. The week of visits ended with our bi-annual parents meeting at the school last Saturday. Everyone initially gathered in the courtyard, parents mingling around the tables, and young siblings kicking balls around with the students. Then the parents were called in for the commencement of the meeting. It was obvious that many of them felt uncomfortable in the room- surrounded by basic electricity, running water, and computers.
At this time, our principal, Dara started handing out snacks, simultaneously whispering to me that before we started the meeting, we had to ensure that everyone felt comfortable. He took about fifteen minutes to mingle and laugh with the families. The meeting only began when smiles filled the room.
His pure kindness struck me. The success of TGC is tribute to its governance. In the face of the disturbing political headlines, I am comforted that I’m part of an organization that acts as a model for leadership. From Cambodia to Washington DC, leadership must always start with kindness.