Facebook, NGOs, and an Internationally Destructive Game of Telephone

Facebook, NGOs, and an Internationally Destructive Game of Telephone

Note: I originally wrote this post on Tuesday, November 22 while still in Cambodia, but chose to hold off on publishing until I was out of the area due to its politically sensitive nature.  

I'm not one for politics. Mostly because of all the talking. I'm not one for lawyers either, or speech givers, or tour guides with a thick accent and a broken megaphone, or that person in the tour who insists on interjecting every few minutes with an irrelevant comment. You know that person. The guide points to a coconut tree and this person says, "Coconuts? When do we get our piña coladas? Wooooo!" And you secretly wish that coconut would just lodge off the tree and engage in a little cranial adjustment. 

When I hear political talk, I generally look up and hope that rogue coconut misses the closet alcoholic and instead comes to put me out of my misery. But once in a while, someone comes along and says something that completely derails any thoughts I've ever had on the subject. Like today, over a plate of stewed fish and vegetables, a Cambodian woman told me she was so mad at America because for her entire life, foreigners have come to her country and told her people that they need to support women and treat them like equals...and then we turn around and elect a man who yells a lot. I've heard a lot of explanations as to why people did or did not vote for Clinton or Trump or Harambe the Gorilla, but "because you told me we were equal" is one so loaded with history that I can only barely comprehend its weight. 

Context is necessary here, because there is a lot to unpack in that statement, and I've only got like two more minutes before you remember Facebook exists and get bored with me. The woman who said this to me is in her thirties and was born just after the Cambodian genocide ended. Until she was 17, she never knew a world beyond her high school and her home in Phenom Penh. She was lucky though, and thanks to a generation of women who worked for $70/month in a garment factory that produces your clothes, she was able to go to college, travel internationally, and become part of the Cambodian middle class. 

Conversation over lunch. 

Conversation over lunch. 

All children born in the late 70s and early 80s in Cambodia were born to parents who witnessed unimaginable mass murder and suffering at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, the Cambodian political party that massacred at least two million of its own people between 1975 and 1979.  Imagine, for a moment, being forced out of your home and as you are paraded out of your city, an entire orphanage of children is slaughtered as you walk by. And then they grab your brother — just because he wears glasses and that means he might be educated — and kill him in front of you. That's just the first day. Once you arrive in the province they bring you to, they force you to work, starve you, and continue to kill your family and friends. They make you fight the war for them, and really, the only reason you survive was dumb luck and quick thinking. When the Khmer Rouge is officially (but not necessarily practically) removed from power in 1979, you go back to what's left of your home and start a family.

Now, imagine you're the child born right after all of this, and the foundation of your entire life is built on the torment of your parents and the muddled efforts of NGOs. Foreigners come in and declare democracy and a bright future. Specifically, the focus is on educating girls and working to give them the same opportunities as boys. 

And now, the future of Cambodia is here. Democracy never comes. Elections are rigged. An entire generation of educators, doctors, and artists was wiped out, leaving nothing but a minefield of explosives and untreated PTSD sufferers. But, this isn't a closed off country. The internet is here and social media is king. Yet, this isn't a country of free speech, either. People regularly disappear after they've posted critical comments on Facebook about the prime minister or the state of politics. Cambodians don't dare express their dissent in public, and even within the walls of their home, they speak in hushed voices. No one is safe here. 

This article ran in a Phnom Penh newspaper sometime in the last week of November, 2016. 

This article ran in a Phnom Penh newspaper sometime in the last week of November, 2016. 

The same news on in the United States streams in Cambodia. Out of 70 some odd television channels in Phnom Penh, 16 of them televised the 2016 elections live. Cambodia was watching on November 8, just as you were. But in Cambodia, there isn't any context. A large portion of the country is illiterate and almost no one speaks English — especially political English. They have only gestures, tones, and visuals to interpret, along with whatever the latest NGO has been telling them about women's rights. Most Cambodians aren't sourcing news, Wikileaks, or asking for proof. All they see is a radical man who talks a lot and a stoic woman who represents a possibility. They don't know about the issues. They don't know what is fake news and what is real, but they will still post (and repost) on Facebook, creating an internationally destructive game of Telephone. 

And so I asked a question during this incredibly open conversation. I asked this woman, whom I have great respect for and who showed me incredible kindness, if she would still support a female Presidential candidate if she had committed the same atrocities as Pol Pot, the mastermind behind the Khmer Rouge. Without hesitation, almost interrupting me, she said, "Yes, because at least it shows our girls that women can be equal." 

I looked at my bowl and searched for a bit of meat in a broth of fish bones. This is what it's come to. Equality in the name of genocide.