What People Care About – Sunday, 21.12.2008

Posted on 22 December 2008. Filed under: *Editorial*, Week 591 |

The Mirror, Vol. 12, No. 591

The newspapers carry, week after week, reports that things are not going well in society. We mirrored on Monday: “Poverty Forces Children to Leave Home and Find Jobs Anywhere” – it was not just an article with abstract figures, but it carried some detailed examples, examples that represent many similar cases: a teenage girl working in a brick kiln; another, age 13, who has off only three days in a year, and all other days she works 16 hours a day, for US$17.50 a month; and a boy, age 14, who works as a car washer – of course he too, like the girls mentioned, cannot go to school.

“Children in critical situations of child labor are those working on salt fields, working at sea and fishing, at brick kilns, as domestic servants, at Poipet working as porters, and at rubber plantations” – it happens every day – and society knows it, including those in leadership positions, like the almost 2000 staff of the National Assembly who earn between US$150 to US$500, and more so the members of the executive branch of government – 463  ministers, secretaries of state, and under-secretaries of state – in a country which has only about 14 million inhabitants. 
Or we could list known persons accused of grabbing the land on which people have been living for years – as the leaders of two human rights organizations – ADHOC and LICADHO – said: when a poor person whose land is being taken gives their thumbprint as signature and gives up, they are free – otherwise even the courts are against them.

And we could add lots of rape cases – like the cases reported this week – about a father who raped his 11-year-old daughter repeatedly, before her mother found the strength to report her husband to the police, or the 9-year-old girl who was raped in a guest house for four days before somebody intervened.

Who cares to speak up? Or even to act on behalf of others who suffer?

There is another, quite different case this week, which led to several newspaper articles and to hundreds of mails: A Cambodian artist, in the USA, invited the public, through his website Reahu – Eclipse – to join in his effort:

“I’m trying to build an online Khmer Arts community for novice artists, advance artists, graphic artists, tattoo artists, or anyone for that matter who is interested in Khmer Arts. We can share ideas, discuss about your designs, and network with other Khmer artists from across the United States and around the world.”

Together with this invitation to debate, he presented his art work – Apsaras drawn in an erotic way, daemons, tattoos, mythical figures. He offers also practical guidance for painting. But instead of discussion, he got hundreds of mails with such content:

“But you really crazy because you destroy your own culture…”

“I don’t know how well you are educated that can bring you to develop and design such kind of degraced picture to Khmer culture. If you are Khmer Blood, you MUST stop publish this kind of bad thing to Cambodia.”

“Before u paint the picture, do u know exactly about the culture of this or not? if u not sure, so please don’t paint it… Apsara is not like you paint, Almost people in cambodia are angry with your painting, coz you a looking down khmer culture.”

“Hey you are crazy.”

“I hop my e-maill will find you well. I’m wrinting this e-mail to you express my opinion that I really disappointed to see all the Apsara sexy picture on your website. To me, this really destroy the Khmer culture. If you are Khmer, please stop design the Apsara sxy… if you like Apsara, please do not try to paly around and make up any things to the original Apsara. I do hope that you will understand and stop design all those pictures.”

His answer:

“Other countless emails are similar in tone and manner. So please enlighten me as to “How can a picture destroy Khmer culture? Unless there is something wrong with the culture. If the culture is strong and you have confidence, you shouldn’t worry.” Don’t get me wrong, I’m a pure bred Khmer and I know Khmer culture very well. I want a healthy discussion regarding this subject. So please enlighten me!”

“I believe in constructive criticisms! But lately, I’ve received many unwanted complaints regarding that some of my works disgraced the Khmer culture. Judging from the complaints, I wonder how we as Khmer will be able to make it in the 21st Century. Please be open-minded, you must be able to see beyond the four walls surrounding your hut…”

It seems important that this confrontative discussion started on the Internet – a means of world wide communication, which reminds us all that we are living in an interrelated and interdependent world – a world which is undergoing deep changes because of the globalization not only of information, but also of ideas.

The Association for Progressive Communication – the Open Institute of Cambodia is a supporting member of this worldwide fellowship, and especially also of its Women’s Networking Support Program, in which women from 55 countries cooperate – published in 2007 an Issue Paper on Content Regulation on the Internet, written by the Indian lawyer, a researcher on gender issues, and a teacher at a women’s college Namita Malhotra: “The World Wide Web of Desire.” We present here some of her considerations. They do not relate specifically to the question of the Khmer controversy. They can help, however, to locate the Khmer discussion into the wider context of challenges to traditional and stagnant views of cultural values, which are challenged by people, especially also by women all over the world, not to be under patriarchal and traditional constraints and guidance, but to find their own equal value in society. We quote some sections:

“The Internet is often described as the last frontier for free speech and expression, an anarchic and chaotic space for irrepressible political, sexual and personal expression. However, the last decade has seen an increase in the confidence of states to govern the Internet, and simultaneously the crackdown on spaces on the Internet. What are the processes by which people will participate in deciding how the Internet will be governed? How participatory are these processes and do they give adequate representation to all voices? And in the context of content regulation specifically, who decides what is ‘harmful content’ – the state, international bodies, the law or people/end-users?”

There seems to be only one real general area of agreement: that child pornography is wrong.

“The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child recognizes this autonomy, in terms of a child’s right to access to information and material from a diversity of national and international sources, rights against arbitrary or unlawful interference with his or her privacy, family home or correspondence, and the right to freedom of expression (including freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of the child’s choice).” [UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, esp. articles 13, 16, 17]

While there had been much concern to create state arrangements to protect women and children, women’s groups and others working on gender issues, “have encountered and realized the hazards of demanding protection from the state, in the interests of their own freedom of expression and because of their alliances with civil society, non-governmental organizations and social movements.”

Content control – censorship – often starts with anti-pornography campaigns. However, a universal definition through the ages and across cultures of what is acceptable or unacceptable has proven to be impossible. And it is obvious from the experience of many repressive societies that the stated goal of controlling pornography has often the aim of an overarching political control:

“Yet there are more complex meanings embedded in pornography that do not allow it to be easily dismissed as violence and subordination of women. Unpacking pornography first leads us to the objects that are mistakenly placed in this category, that have enormous literary, artistic, social and/or political significance. Pornography also paradoxically provides one of the few free spaces for the expression of counter-hegemonic representations of sexualities and desires. It is an element of community building amongst queer groups, of the refashioning of selves in terms of gender and sexuality, and in some instances even destabilizing the institutions of family and patriarchy. ..”

“In the developing world, laws are being used to regulate not just obscene speech (or pornography) but also political dissidence and rebellious voices of women and men… It is in this frighteningly draconian context, where the state has no compunctions about policing sex and sexuality, that our understanding of censorship laws has to be located.”

“If sex is repressed, that is, condemned to prohibition, silence and non-existence, then by just speaking about it you are engaging in an act of deliberate transgression. A person who holds forth in such language places herself to a certain extent outside the reach of power; she upsets established law; she somehow anticipates the coming of freedom.”

The suppression of sexual expression appears, thus, as an element of wider social and political total control.

“Though this may sound utopian, self-regulation might actually be the model that is most practical for the Internet. Self-regulation manages to address the multitude of concerns related to content regulation: the freedom of expression, including sexual expression; disparate cultural standards and conflicting definitions in different jurisdictions; the technological hassles of controlling gateways and the political and administrative conundrums of controlling ISPs; the reality of cyber harassment and violence against women in cyberspace; and practices around sex and sexuality on the Internet that cannot be contained within a heteronormative framework. Last but not least, it can help to nurture and sustain the existence of spaces for fantasy and unruly desires to speak, perform, and be.”

The challenge which the Reahu website offers, to develop a fundamental debate about past tradition, renewal, and the future, could become an important point of departure beyond the repetitive copying of traditional elements, as seen in the mass production of Angkor Wat and Apsara pictures for the tourism industry. The rich tradition of Cambodian art deserves more than copying.

And it is to be hoped that the problems mirrored weekly, such as child labor, rape and landgrabbing, will in the future receive some of the attention and passion that people give to the issue of what one artist has painted.

Please recommend us to your colleagues and friends.

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