Thursday, June 28, 2012

Is it right for foreigners to join protests in Cambodia?

This is a zoom on a photo taken by Lauren Crothers at the protest yesterday and posted on Twitter.

Yesterday, there was a protest on the riverfront here in Phnom Penh. It was one of a series of protests of the last several years related to the forced evictions and land seizures in the Boeung Kak Lake area in Phnom Penh (and across the country.) The purpose of this particular protest was to raise awareness and to push the government to release 13 women who were recently imprisoned for their involvement in protest activities related to the lake area evictions. The protesters blocked traffic on the busy Sisowath Quay Street in front of the FCC restaurant in the heart of the tourist district. I was not present at the protest, but followed it via Twitter. At least 2 people (Lauren Crothers and Donald Rallis) were present at the protest, tweeting the happenings and posting photos of the protest in progress.*

As the photos came through I noticed a new twist to this protest - western foreigners present amongst the Cambodian protesters, clearly participating in the protest. Note in the center photo above the western woman in sunglasses and a protest t-shirt. Other westerners were involved as well. There have also been strong (though not definitive) indications of foreign involvement in other recent forced eviction/land seizure protests in Cambodia, such as the Prey Lang protesters dressing as characters from Avatar. But, to my knowledge, this is the first time that westerners have visibly participated in the protest itself.

Conflicted about the ethics of foreigners participating in political protests in Cambodia, I pointed out the presence of foreigners in the crowd on Twitter and tweeted the question, 'Is it right for foreigners to join in protests in Cambodia?' The question generated an immediate flood of opinions and debate on Twitter, which was hampered by the 140 character Twitter format. So I bring that same question here to my blog to allow more room for comment.

I am still conflicted on the matter, but as I read the comments of others and took time to give it further consideration, I now find myself leaning strongly toward, 'No, it is not right.'

Though I have not developed a final position, my current (and primary) reasoning for opposing foreign participation in protests in Cambodia runs as follows:

These protests have the potential to generate significant long-term consequences for Cambodia, Cambodian society and the Cambodian people. The issues driving the protests have a considerable political component and the solutions are not universally agreed upon by Cambodians. Much more importantly, the consequences of such protests for Cambodia may be positive or negative or a mix. Most foreigners, especially short term visitors as these foreign protesters seem to be, will not be around to share those consequences. Whether they leave in the near future or when the effects of these protests take hold on Cambodia, they will leave. And regardless of whether they leave or not, they will always have the option of leaving and going home to their countries. Cambodia is not their home. As such, they do not share the same stake in Cambodia as the Cambodian citizens whose home will be affected and most of whom must remain in Cambodia and suffer (or enjoy) the effects on their country. As their stake in Cambodia is fundamentally different from citizens of Cambodia, these foreigners do not have the ethical right to join political and social protests in Cambodia, or for that matter, act as coordinators behind the protests.

This is not to say the foreigners should remain mute on matters of Cambodian politics and social justice. But there is a difference between being a critic, perhaps offering inspiration, and being an actor, trying to effect change oneself. Becoming directly and physically involved in Cambodian political affairs by joining such protests is an action akin to rights correctly reserved for citizens such as voting or running for office, and I would hold that foreigners who have no direct and inescapable stake in Cambodia, have no more ethical right to join protests in Cambodia than they do to vote in Cambodian elections. It is a step over the line.

I'm still mulling over this question of the ethics of foreigners participating in protests in Cambodia and invite others to express their thoughts and opinions on the matter.

Appeals Court Orders Release of 13 Boeung Kak Protesters
Cambodia Villages Stage Avatar Themed Protest
Boeung Kak lake residents arrested by police while on peaceful protest
Save Boeung Kak Lake website
Cambodia’s Land Crisis

* Edit: Just to be clear, these two people were at the protest as a journalist and as a bystander/observer, not as participants.

33 comments:

  1. Very well said, and I agree. While I don't think its a good idea for foreigners to be on the ground protesting, I am admittedly a very vocal critic of human rights abuse and oppressive communist policies in a certain neighboring country. I would never and have never physically participated in any related activities on the ground there, for the very reasons that you have stated--but I remain active in writing about it in print and online.

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  2. Look, I get your point. But where do you drawn the line? What about Khmer-Americans who have moved back, can they protest? What about young people that are half-Khmer that are raised in Cambodia, can they protest? What about foreign young people that are raised in Cambodia and spent their whole lives here? What about stateless Khmer-Vietnamese? Can they protest? I think when we start saying that "foreigners" shouldn't do something in Cambodia, it often means "white people." I agree that the only changes in Cambodia are going to come from Cambodians mobilizing and making those changes themselves, it should be Cambodian directed. But if a few foreigners feel the issue affects them, far be it from me to say that they shouldn't be allowed to protest. What about the foreigner who has his land stolen in a land grab -- should he really not protest just because of the color of his skin?

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    1. Thank you for your comments.

      First, to be perfectly clear, my point has absolutely nothing to do with people’s race or color. I don’t think I said anything to imply that it was.

      Further, this is not about those who, for whatever reason, feel they may in some way be “affected” by events in Cambodia. This is about those who have a ‘direct and inescapable’ stake in and connection to Cambodia as contrasted with those who don’t. This line is most easily and obviously drawn by Cambodian citizenship. Granted, there are some borderline and debatable cases but just because the line may be fuzzy at points, doesn’t mean there isn’t a line. In fact I would probably be an excellent example of a borderline case – in Cambodia almost 20 years, my family and children here, my investment, my business, my money, my friends, my relatives, all of my property, pretty much my entire life here. But I am not a citizen, and regardless of how deep my stake and connection, I still always have the option of leaving, going to my country and being home. So, yes, there may be some debate about whether people in special circumstance such as myself have the ethical right to protest, but outside of such special cases and a couple that you listed above, the side of the line on which most which foreigners fall (almost certainly including all of those foreigners in the protest) is clear.

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  3. I don't think this was directed toward anyone who is not 100% Khmer, born and raised. There is a difference between foreigners who are here for the long haul, are landowners and active citizens, and foreigners who are in and out trying to be a part of something just so they can have some fun and excitement and feel good about themselves "fighting injustice." It is a valid question, one that all of us foreigners living in the Kingdom of Wonder should consider. Where is the line? I think we all agree that forced evictions and things of this nature are not ideal but is it our place to physically participate in a protest when we can easily hop the next plane out when things get ugly? I would have to agree with the author: "and I would hold that foreigners who have no direct and inescapable stake in Cambodia, have no more ethical right to join protests in Cambodia than they do to vote in Cambodian elections."

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  4. Long time listener, first time caller. Thanks for the extensive linkage!

    In my experience, when local Cambodians want to act on an issue, many attempt to work within the system (which can be painstakingly slow for those used to Western models of advocacy). I have a lot of respect for those who attempt to cultivate constructive change. As a foreigner, I usually feel it's more appropriate to be observing and documenting.

    One thought following on from your commentary: beyond short term foreign protesters on the streets, there are long term efforts by foreign businesses, NGOs and Governments to influence Cambodian policies in their favor. Hmm... might collect my thoughts on that for a post of my own.

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  5. I share many od the sentiments you write about in this thought-provoking post. As you note, I was at the protest on Wednesday; I tweeted about what I saw and took a lot of photographs which I later posted online. I didn't set out to go to the protest; in fact I didn't know that it was happening until I stumbled across it by accident. I have taken part in lots of protests in my time, and watched many more. But was the first such event I had witnessed in Cambodia and I found it fascinating.

    One of the first things I noticed was that a number of foreigners were taking part, and several were wearing "Free the 15" t-shirts. On the basis of the little I knew about the issues involved, I was certainly sympathetic to the protesters and their cause. As a foreigner, though, I did not believe it was my place to participate myself. I had no qualms about documenting the event with my camera and tweeting about what I saw. But that is as much as I felt comfortable with. (I don't think that the issues are clear-cut at all, though, and I am certainly not ready to be critical of those principled foreigners who chose to participate.)

    One the questions that occurred to me at the protest was I would feel about non-resident foreigners joining me in political protests in my home countries (I am a dual citizen of the USA and South Africa.) One the one hand, I would certainly appreciate their willingness to lend their voices to a cause I believe it. On the other, though, I might feel just a twinge of resentment at outsiders inserting themselves into domestic political debates in whose outcome they had no vested interest.

    This analogy omits some important pieces, though, including Adam's point about human rights, the very premise of which that if a country denies certain basic rights to its citizens, it violates laws that know no national boundaries. As an activist in South Africa the 1970s and 1980s, I had no reservations whatsoever when foreigners joined anti-apartheid demonstrations. As a American citizen today, I would feel the same way about foreigners who openly demonstrated against US military adventurism or the indefinite detention without trial of prisoners of the Guantanamo kind. But regardless of my sentiments on the issues themselves, I would probably feel differently if a foreigner in the 2010s joined protesters in South Africa against corruption in government, or protesters in Wisconsin demonstrating against Governor Walker's stand on unions for state employees.

    A final question: Does anyone else feel that there something vaguely colonial (or neocolonial) about Europeans or Americans participating in a protest in Cambodia (or Ghana, Bolivia or Fiji?) I suspect this is the South African in me speaking here, and not the American...

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  6. would say NO; its not their country/government, they have no vested interest in what is going on and are just there to appear they are concerned.
    Back when they held the last demonstrations in Bangkok a few Farangs got involved, ( one even was on the stage) the Thai government caught them, jailed them and threw them out of the country.

    If Barangs want to protest am sure there are plenty of causes back in their own country.

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  7. Thought-provoking blog post. My story on the matter appears in today's paper and includes the gov't reaction to barangs at protests (basically, that it's a joke and do they think they're going to create some kind of Cambodian Spring?)

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    1. Where can I find the article? I would be very interested in seeing it.

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    2. I haven't seen it yet, but Lauren ordinarily writes for the Cambodia Daily, so it could probably be found there.

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  8. I think if they have a business, or Khmer partner or in-laws/relatives affected then they have every right to be there. Otherwise I'm not so keen.

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  9. Quite a thought-provoking piece. The point about people stepping over the line if they do not vote here is a point I don't totally agree with. That implies the issue is a purely political one. Surely this issue is a human rights issue as the women's imprisonment contravened their human rights.
    With that in mind, surely any human can call for the women's human rights to be upheld (i.e a fair trial) and for them to be freed.
    Also, if someone is wearing a Free the 15 T-shirt, are they doing anything but calling for those 15 people to be released? And, again, if it is a human rights issue, what is the problem?
    Do you have any reason to believe that the person you have singled out is doing any more than calling for these women's human rights to be protected?

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    1. Thank you for your comments.

      I didn’t mean to single out that one woman (or the foreign male sitting next to her.) That just happened to be the only photo to which I had access at the time that clearly showed a foreigner in the protest and I wanted to offer photographic evidence of my claim that foreigners were participating. Since then, several other photos showing other foreigners wearing the t-shirts and sitting amongst the Cambodian protestors have surfaced on Facebook and Twitter.

      I don’t think that my voting analogy implies that this or the related issues are purely political. As I said, there is a political component to the issue, as there can be human rights components to election politics in Cambodia. In fact Cambodia has a ‘Human Rights Party’ and at least one other party that bases much of its platform on human rights issues. While there is an argument to be made that in theory human rights are apolitical, in practice politics and human rights are not exclusive of one another.

      That aside, even if it were purely a human rights issue, my argument would remain the same as stated in the original post. These protests, whether over human rights, politics or a mix, may have a significant impact on Cambodia and the Cambodian people, and not necessarily a positive one. If the Cambodians feel it is important enough to risk that consequence for their country and countrymen, protesting is certainly within their rights, both legal and ethical. But as foreigners do not share that same risk and stake in Cambodia, they do not have the ethical right to participate in inflicting that risk on Cambodia and the Cambodian people.

      Further, even if the Cambodian protestors asked the foreigners to join the protest, they still would have no more ethical right to join the protest than they would have the ethical right to vote in Cambodian elections if the Cambodian Human Rights party asked them to. The ethical right to participate in activities such as protests and voting should be restricted to citizens and/or those with a direct and inescapable stake in the country.

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  10. Thank you all for your thoughtful comments. My apologies for not responding earlier. I have been on the road and have had limited internet access. I will try to respond to comments as time and internet access allows.

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  11. Absolutely not. And I don't want foreigners protesting in my native country as well.

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  12. I find your post to be very disturbing. I'd also like to note that your blog post was picked up by The Cambodia Herald, a pro- government website, which essentially used your post to try to blame the protest on foreigners (as if they are not somehow to blame by making such ridiculous charges against the Boeung Kak women and imprisoning them in a sham trial).

    Foreigners do have a right to exercise the right to freedom of assembly- this right is defined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Cambodia has signed and ratified. The ICCPR does not limit the right to freedom of assembly to ONLY natives of a particular country.

    Further, your logic is flawed. You write:"These protests have the potential to generate significant long-term consequences for Cambodia"... So what? Maybe the long term consequence that the government will stop selling off all the land to corporations? What difference does that make? "The issues driving the protests have a considerable political component"- this is false- this is not political in a sense of one political party versus another- it's a rights issue and an ethical issue of whether it's appropriate to sell off land to the benefit of high ranking officials, and no benefit to the Cambodian people.

    Continuing on, you seem to be saying that there could be negative consequences for Cambodians from these protests, and that foreigners will not share in them because they won't be around. You seem to be implying that, by participating, foreigners could actually be endangering Cambodians. But I think it's worth noting that, Cambodians at the demonstration didn't seem to mind that foreigners were there. If the demonstrators don't feel that the foreigners are endangering them, who are you to say?

    In this age of globalization, in which many people migrate, it is totally inappropriate to say that people who are not in their home country don't have the right to demonstrate. You are essentially creating an argument which seeks to deny people their rights.

    Further, in my opinion, the injustices in Cambodia are such that many more people should be demonstrating. If it takes the involvement of some non-Cambodians to bring that about, then I think it is a positive. The ruling class in Cambodia is abusing the people in such a way that should not be getting of scott-free.

    By writing your blog you have become a tool for the oligarchs of this country. It's shameful. All I can say is I hope someday someone steals your land and throws you in prison. And then no one stands up for you. That's what you deserve.

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    1. Paragraph 1 : The government had noted the hand of foreigners in previous protests and the presence of foreigners in this protest well before my blog post. This post did not alert them to the participation of foreigners in the protest. Though your comment does highlight another reason some observers (not me) have cited why foreigners should not participate in protests - that the government is then able to use it as a tool to diminish the legitimacy of Cambodians protesting as it can make it appear that the Cambodians are being orchestrated/manipulated by foreigners with foreign interests.

      Paragraph 2 : I did not argue that foreigners do not have the legal right to protest. That is another matter. I argued that they do not have the ethical right.

      Paragraph 4 : I did not argue that foreign participation in protests in Cambodia may endanger Cambodians but that these protests may have serious consequences for Cambodia and Cambodians. And that as Cambodian citizens have a direct and inescapable stake in Cambodia they have the ethical right to decide for themselves to risk that for their country and their fellow citizens. As foreigners do not share that stake, they do not share that ethical right, even if they are invited. As noted in a previous response, even if some Cambodians would like it if foreigners were allowed to vote in Cambodia because they believe it works to the advantage their particular cause, that would still not give foreigners the ethical right to do so as they do not have a direct and inescapable stake in the country.

      Final paragraph : Spouting off about human rights and freedoms in one paragraph and then wishing me harm in the next for exercising my right to express a divergent opinion not only reveals you a hypocrite but also pretty much removes any moral/ethical weight your opinion may have had.

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    2. Your reply to paragraph 1: The government may have noted their "hand" before, but you gave it even more credibility, and became a tool of oppression. Maybe you should apply to be the mouthpiece of the economic land concessions?

      Perhaps it only diminishes the legitimacy of the protests in your eyes? Another way of interpreting it is that it shows that the arrest and sham trial was a violation of internationally recognized principles which was an outrage not only to Cambodians, but to others as well?

      Ethical right, blah blah blah. While you are waxing philosophical, people are losing their land to the highest bidder.

      So basically your argument is that people don't have an "ethical right" to protest if they don't have a direct and inescapable stake in the country. I think this is irrelevant. Your argument is insignificant. People have a human right to freedom of assembly, and that is the end of the story.

      Final paragraph: people who seek to deny others their rights, and provide "ethical" justification for the oppression of others deserve to get what they fail to protect for others.

      YOU'RE WRONG! Sorry, I cannot be kind to you when you say such disgusting things!

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  13. Well I have a simple objection to this whole subject: you cannot identify the foreigners in a peaceful free assembly simply by observing (or photographing, or blogging photos taken at) it. Southeast Asians from neighboring countries are frequently indistinguishable from Cambodians. And they are every bit as foreign as the unidentified white lady in the photo at the top of your post. For that matter, you have no idea how much privilege this unidentified white lady has, or what country she's from, or whether or not she is even legally able to return to it. Making assumptions about her, or the rest of the protesters, based on appearance is simply a waste of time.

    Freedom to assemble means just that -- it does not extend only to only citizens of the country, any more than it extends to only one class of citizens (males, for example). You need only to look at the development of successful democracy the world over to see the evidence of that. If the police start checking IDs at the gate there is no freedom to assemble, and if they don't check IDs, there's no way to enforce any restrictions. Catch-22, and you have a simple choice: either have freedom (and so does everyone else), or don't.

    Unless you want to create a racially-based kind of freedom (which you claim you don't), in which European-looking people have less rights in Cambodia than Asian-looking people.

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    1. I'd be willing to bet pretty much anything you'd be willing to lay on the the table that those were foreigners. And whether or not she and all the other foreigners at that protest are able to return to their home countries, again, I'd also be willing to bet you that none of them has a direct and inescapable stake in the country.

      As noted above I did not argue that they do not have the legal right or freedom to protest but that they do not have the ethical right to protest, so any arguments about the supposed unenforceability of a law against foreigners joining protests is not to the point. Though it is worth noting that it would be quite unfortunate if the participation of foreigners in protests in Cambodia gave the authorities excuse/reason to further limit protest rights of Cambodians by, e.g., having them pass a law against it (as many countries have) and 'check IDs at the door.'

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    2. +1. I actually know one of the foreigners who participated, he's a nice guy and his heart is in the right place, but he definitely falls a long long way from the "direct and inescapable stake in Cambodia" bracket.

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    3. Yes, I have little doubt that for many if not most of them, their intentions are good. But as somebody smarter than me once said, good intentions are not enough.

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  14. A little late, nevertheless.. A previous comment referenced the ICCPR. This covenant only applies to citizens of a country but not to people visiting a country. Since there is no 'green card' in Cambodia all foreigners are either short-term or long-term visitors. Each and every one of them is here on a visa. As we know business visas are good for one year and may be extended for 1 year at a time indefinitely. This still does not make you a legal resident with political rights. You cannot vote, you cannot demonstrate, you cannot protest, you cannot assemble freely without special permission from the host country. You may observe, and that's the extent of it. It does not matter whether you own a business here or not or whether you legally have a Cambodian spouse. As long as the foreigner did not obtain citizenship his rights are limited. Without supporting the government's practices, but nobody asked the foreigner to come here; they have come entirely of their own volition; although they are very much welcomed for their money, knowledge transfers, and expertise in many fields that are still very much lacking here.

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  15. @ Jay, can you read? If so, please tell me where in the ICCPR say that it only applies to the citizens of a particular country? Article 2.1: Each State Party to the present Covenant undertakes to respect and to ensure to all individuals within its territory and subject to its jurisdiction the rights recognized in the present Covenant, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.
    Article 2.3 Each State Party to the present Covenant undertakes: (a) To ensure that ANY PERSON whose rights or freedoms as herein recognized are violated shall have an effective remedy, notwithstanding that the violation has been committed by persons acting in an official capacity;
    Article 21: The right of peaceful assembly shall be recognized. No restrictions may be placed on the exercise of this right other than those imposed in conformity with the law and which are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, public order (ordre public), the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.

    So where in there does it say that the ICCPR does not imply to foreigners?

    You are right, people visiting here do not have the right to vote, but they still have HUMAN RIGHTS.

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  16. My dear friend,
    It is not about just reading but interpreting what is written. Legalese is not easy to comprehend. 'All individuals within its territory' by normal legal definition means 'nationals and people with a right to live there'.

    The right to demonstrate is restricted to people who have a stake in that country. Visitors do not have that right, no matter how you slice it.

    Visitors do have human rights, but those do not include political rights in a host country. Demonstrating is a political right.

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    1. I don't think your interpretation of the words in the ICCPR are accurate. What is your source of that interpretation?
      I think the following link puts this question to rest: from a human rights perspective, non-citizens do have a right to the rights contained in the ICCPR
      http://www1.umn.edu/humanrts/demo/noncitMay99.html

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  17. The biggest issue I have is that many of the foreigners have this misconception that they're helping to enact the will of the Cambodian people.

    Or worse yet, that the Cambodian people are too scared or misinformed to rise up against their oppressive overlords and it's up to their betters to step in and educate or lead the charge.

    As Donald rightly pointed out it definitely stinks of neo-colonialism at times.

    The opinion of Phnom Penh residents were expressed at the recent commune elections, the SRP for whom Phnom Penh was always a stronghold used this issue as their main rallying cry during their campaign in the city and subsequently lost every single commune.

    The reality is that once you step outside of the development aid circles you soon realise that there are many Cambodians (IMHO a majority) although sympathetic to their plight don't agree that the residents of both the Boeng Kak and Borei Keila have a legal right to the land. One person even told me that it was karma - they stole the land in the first place and now they are having it stolen back from them.

    Ask any Cambodian who was resident in Phnom Penh during the late eighties and early nineties how those locations became communities and what those sites were used for prior to that and most importantly who populated those sites. You will hear a very interesting story that I've never seen printed in the local English language press.

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    1. Chris,
      You are dead on. Boeng Kak was part of the underbelly of Phnom Penh at that time. The businesses the locals did there was for the most part illegal. Nobody cared as there was no law enforcement to speak of. People just moved in and occupied a piece of land, built a hut on it, and never bothered to file a legal claim. That doesn't mean they should be evicted nilly-willy but one needs to put things into perspective. Most people in the aid community have no idea what it was like at that time.

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  18. I dont want speak about the right of the protest, if it is good cause or not.

    But I think it isnt the place to be for foreigners! Better they manage their problem that they have in their countries.

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  19. based on your logic here, you- as a foreigner, have no right to comment

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    1. Not true. Read again. I specifically noted the difference between being a 'critic' and being an 'actor.' You may not agree with my argument, but based on that "logic," I do have the right to comment.

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  20. I think the following link puts to rest the debate in this blog post about whether foreigners have the right to demonstrate. See paragraphs 16-21 of the following link:
    http://www1.umn.edu/humanrts/demo/noncitMay99.html

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    1. It is not about "whether foreigners have the right to demonstrate" but about whether it is right for foreigners to demonstrate. It is not a legal point but an ethical one.

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