"Hey guys there's a lecture about international investment in Cambodia this evening. It should be really interesting-you guys should go!"
So suggested my supervisor to several of my colleagues and me last Tuesday. I had been in Phnom Penh for less than a week, and it was only my second day "on the job." Little did I know that I would have front-row seats to perhaps one of the most fascinating spectacles I would ever experience in this nation.
Professor Surya Subedi is a practicing barrister, prolific legal scholar, professor of international law at University of Leeds, as well as the current UN Special Rapporteur to Cambodia. He also has a resume so compelling and extensive that it merits its own wikipedia page, so I knew he was kind of a big deal. So my colleagues "Turquoise" and "Hermione" (not their real names) decided that this was certainly a lecture worth checking out. After we finished up at the office, we hailed one of the city's ubiquitous and relatively spacious tuk-tuks (which of course are always enthusiastic to transport expats!).
After a scenic yet somewhat chaotic journey involving a minor crash (in which the tuk-tuk's brakes failed and the driver managed to turn just in time to avoid a head-on collision) while going to the completely opposite side of the city, we finally made it to the hosting venue, Cambodian Mekong University. We rushed up the twelve flights of stairs in our business attire to make it just in time to catch the majority of Prof. Subedi's lecture.
Standing Room Only
In front of a packed audience composed of mostly students studying law, human rights, and public administration from CMU and other institutions in Phnom Penh, Prof. Subedi spoke at length about the various relationships and responsibilities between governments, foreign businesses and investors, and the local workers. I was particularly fascinated with Subedi's analysis of the arbitration processes between governments and foreign investors/companies, as well as his exploration of the sources of the basic rights which workers are entitled to within the scope of international law. I especially appreciated Subedi's brief yet powerful addressing of workers' rights in the aftermath of the latest series of tragedies to strike both my native Bangladesh as well as in this nation I currently call home.
After Subedi finished, he reserved time for questions from the audience. Although the topic of his lecture was on international investment and development in Cambodia and only briefly discussed human rights within the scope of workers' rights, he was instantly confronted with a series of piercing questions on his latest human rights report. Through "Turquoise's" gracious translations, I was able to understand most of these questions' content. With the exception of a remarkable student-monk-who pointed out that Subedi's report contained both criticisms and progress made by Cambodia and articulated a nuanced question about Subedi's recommendations for Cambodia to make further progress-the remaining students essentially categorically rejected Subedi's findings and aggressively called into question Subedi and the UN's role in Cambodia while zealously defending the government's human rights record.
Several students inquired why Cambodia required a special rapporteur for human rights from the UN at all. Perhaps the most intriguing allegation occurred when one student openly insinuated that Subdei's criticisms of Cambodia's human rights record was based on his need for job security within the UN. Several students simply declared that they were "disappointed" in Subedi. Each of these questions and sentiments recieved racuous applause from many (although by no means all) members of the audience.
Subedi began by thanking his audience and "saluting" their youthful spirit. Although he (rather understandably) may not have agreed with the premise of many of their questions, he certainly respected their right to ask them and emphasized that he came in the spirit of a long-standing "friend of Cambodia." He then explained that because Cambodia is a member state of the United Nations, the government and people of Cambodia have voluntarily subjected themselves to the UN's jurisdiction. However, Subedi clarified that this jurisdiction is simply advisory as the UN wields no actual mandate over the Cambodian government and must respect any legislative or executive action which it pursues.
Subedi also attempted to dissuade any negative stigma associated with his post by pointed out that over seventy other nations-including the US and the UK-have dedicated special rapporteurs for human rights working in tandem with national governments to make recommendations. Finally, Subedi emphasized that he spoke to all segments of Cambodian civil society from legal and economic experts to activists and ordinary workers. He challenged the audience to strive to improve the futures of all of their countrymen-including the plight of farmers and factory workers. Subedi urged his young audience to keep an open mind and that, with due time and perspective, they would fully understand and appreciate his message in 20 years. His response was calm, astute, erudite, and above all, remarkably magnanimous and gracious.
Then came the banners. After Subedi's response, a procession of students arrived seemingly out of nowhere with a series of banners in both English and Khmer asking for the UN to leave Cambodia. Several students angrily chanted "No More Subedi!" in English, while others seemed to heckle Subedi as he left the lecture hall. The spectacle continued outside of the hall as the students continued to hold a highly organized rally in front of the cameras. As the campus police began to arrive in force and the OHCHR vehicle sped off (fortunately with Subedi safely inside), we decided it was probably time to leave.
It should certainly be noted that these students were no more representative of Cambodian Mekong University or the general Cambodian youth any more than white supremacist student organizations do justice to the universities they are based in (including my own beloved undergraduate alma mater) or accurately reflect the general attitudes of American society.
Freedom of Expression or Political Theater?
Yet if it was attention that these specific students sought, they certainly got it. In the following week, there were vigorous debates within Cambodian civil society about whether the students' gestures (particularly the chanting and the banners) were within the scope of freedom of expression, or whether the means they utilized were inappropriate and inhospitable.
Out of sheer principle, I am inclined to agree with the latter view. Professor Subedi was an invited guest of both CMU and Cambodia, and as such I believe he should have been accorded all due respect. I have only been in this nation for eleven days, and yet I have already been greeted with hospitality virtually everywhere I go-hospitality which is always warmly showered upon me regardless of whether I tell my curious hosts that I am American, Bangladeshi. or Muslim. I believe that someone of Subedi's stature and history-a man who has dedicated his career to helping the government and people of this proud and ancient nation achieve the noble ideals which inspired its independence in 1953- should certainly have been accorded that same respect and hospitality.
Sending the Elevator Down
Finally, despite my deep reservations about weighing in politically about a country and society which I have just began the process of understanding-yet with which I am rapidly falling in love with-I simply cannot ignore a few stark facts. While students and youths around the world continue to risk and even sacrifice their lives in staggering numbers to fight for fundamental human rights, these students decided to dedicate their passions and energies to protest...human rights. They decided that the status quo was good enough, and to view any constructive criticism designed to challenge that status quo and foster reform as a categorical insult to national pride. This is despite the stunning fact that most of the students were law students, with many specializing in human rights-including a student who was one of Subedi's harshest critics.
Access to higher education remains a privilege in virtually every nation including our own-indeed to the extent that we have young heroes dedicating years of service to helping disadvantaged youths around the nation to graduate high school and pursue college. Any degree worth the time and energy required to attain it should inherently foster analytical skills, critical thinking, and intellectual curiosity. Those who pursue legal education, in particular, should be inspired to champion both institutional reform and pursue social justice. With privilege comes responsibility, and those blessed with the opportunity to pursue scholarship at the highest levels should be willing to send the elevator back down by utilizing their knowledge in order to advocate for the weak and powerless. They should be bold enough to strive for a brighter future for all, not to complacently accept the present. The world's poor and marginalized deserve all the solidarity, advocacy and support that we as a society can muster. To fail this responsibility is to fail our future.
Sparking a Greater Conversation
Highly vibrant and healthy debates continue to rage in school halls, marketplaces, coffeehouses, and streets throughout the nation. Indeed it can be argued that this episode ultimately strengthened the vigorous dialogue that Cambodians are having with each other about their shared futures.
Therefore if I had the opportunity to reach out to this group of students, I would simply say this: You may certainly have the right to your actions, words, affiliations, and mentalities. However, as a fellow youth and law student, I must say that it is you that I am disappointed with. To be on the wrong side of progress, history, and justice is a terrible thing to live with. Prof. Subedi predicted that in 20 years time, you too will embrace the causes of universal human rights, good governance, and social justice. For all of his undefeatable idealism and optimism, I certainly hope he is right. I hope you are able and willing to play a more mature, forward-thinking, and constructive role in the national dialogue which is gripping this nation at a feverish pitch. The future of your nation-and our youth-driven world-depends on it.
Disclaimer: All views articulated in this article are entirely the writer's own and are in no way reflective of any other individuals, institutions or organizations.