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.