Hassan Al Kontar: A Life in Limbo – CBC The World this Weekend

KUALA LUMPUR – Hassan Al Kontar is a 37-year-old Syrian living at Kuala Lumpur International Airport for six months. Human rights defenders inside Malaysia have advised him not to seek asylum in the country because it’s not a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention.

Canadian volunteers are trying to bring Al Kontar to Canada under the refugee sponsorship program, but he may have to wait for up to two years. They’ve started an online petition.

This story aired on CBC The World this Weekend Sunday, Aug. 26, 2018.

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Cambodian Writers Tackle Taboo Topics: A Khmer Literary #MeToo Movement

Catherine Harry A Dose of Cath vlogger

Catherine V. Harry, 23, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

PHNOM PENH – “Chbab Srey! Chbab Srey! Chbab Srey! Ahh! ” Catherine Harry exclaims on her weekly video series, A Dose of Cath.

Harry, 23, is referring to the Khmer women’s code of conduct, a set of traditional proverbs, or poems, that promote an extremely conservative view of women in Cambodia.

Her vlog, A Dose of Cath, deals with subjects like gender equality and reaches millions of Cambodians. But now she wants to tackle these taboo topics in her writing.

“This year I have a different focus. I’m actually working on a novel. It’s a monumental task. But as I’ve started writing it I’ve realized how difficult it is to create characters out of nothing,” Harry said.

Two books published this year by Cambodian women writers challenge the cultural norms set out in the Khmer women’s code – taking their titles directly from it.

“It states women can’t dive deep or go far,” said Kunthea Chan, 36, co-author of the new book Diving Deep Going Far, a “reality novel” based on interviews with several of Cambodia’s leading women in government, business, media and civil society.

“In English ‘Chbab Srey’ means how to be a proper woman,” said Thavry Thon, 28, author of A Proper Woman, her autobiography of growing up in rural Cambodia.

Until recently, the Khmer women’s code of conduct was taught to children in school. It no longer is but it’s still very much a part of Cambodian culture, and hard to counter its myths with facts. But these women writers are trying to do just that.

“I have heard about this code since I was young, but because I was too young to know about society and rights, I didn’t think twice about it. I always thought that a perfect woman had to follow the code,” Harry mentioned in A Dose of Cath.

Later on, I’ve begun to rethink the code. I’ve also just re-read the poem in its entirety, realizing that the code is very problematic. It doesn’t value and it oppresses women.”

Harry laughs when she mentions how someone once called her a “sex demon” for discussing sexual and reproductive health on her vlog. But this hasn’t stopped her from using her platform to discuss a variety of subjects from virginity and menstruation to masturbation.

“Cambodian women are supposed to be gentle, docile and are not supposed to talk about sex and yet here I am talking about it in front of thousands of people on social media,” Harry said.

“I get a lot of accusations and backlash against what I’m doing. One of the most common is people accusing me of destroying my culture [and] that I’m setting a bad example for Khmer women.”

Kunthea Chan

Kunthea Chan, 37, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Kunthea Chan thinks Harry is an impressive young woman. She looks forward to reading Harry’s upcoming novel, and thinks it will be a great addition to Cambodia’s growing literary scene.

“For us as women, culture and norms is inside [of] us. These invisible powers are the biggest obstacle for women,” Kunthea said.

After publishing her book A Proper Woman in English, Thavry Thon used her own savings to pay for the Khmer language translation. She even donated 2,530 copies of it to local schools to encourage young Cambodians to read.

“A lot of my friends publish in Khmer now and it sells very fast,” said Thavry. “The movement is starting. My writer friends come together to produce original content and better quality books. We’ve [organized] a writer’s festival. This year it will be in Battambang.”

A Khmer version of Diving Deep Going Far is in the works, according to Kunthea.

“It will be more effective when this book is translated into Khmer so it can be accessed. Cambodians speak English but not everybody can understand, or read, English well,” Thavry added.

Harry felt inspired reading both Diving Deep Going Far and A Proper Woman. There aren’t many books in Cambodia that discuss women’s issues. She’s confident her novel will bring something new to Cambodian literature.

“I’m hopeful that I will finish it this year. The book is actually [written] in English but then it will have to be translated into Khmer,” Harry said. “I find that the book is certainly needed because we don’t get many books that talk about the lives of Cambodian women.”

Published @Medium

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‘I used to talk about politics on Facebook, but now it’s scary’

2018-08-07 10.12.05

Samoeurth Seavmeng, known as Meng, organises a forum ‘offline’ so people can talk without fear of being monitored on social media [Adam Bemma/Al Jazeera]

As Cambodian critics are targeted online, an offline forum provides space to discuss issues such as a cybercrime law.

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia – Samoeurth Seavmeng sits at a conference table wearing black horn-rimmed glasses.

Meng – as she’s known online and to friends – glances at her smartphone and begins to speak to 10 other young Cambodians gathered at Politikoffee, a weekly forum held in a leafy diplomatic enclave of the capital Phnom Penh.

“It’s very hard to talk about social media. Sometimes people post fake news on Facebook and sometimes people post true news, so it has advantages and disadvantages,” the 22-year-old activist said.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen often alleges “fake news” to discredit criticism of his ruling Cambodia People’s Party online. He has even threatened that authorities have the technology to track and arrest a Facebook user within six minutes of a post.

This has sent a wave of fear and intimidation through Cambodia’s public sphere, where once critical voices have begun to self-censor.

Politikoffee is an offline space where Cambodians feel free to debate and voice dissenting views without fear of arrest.

“Before, I used to share and talk a lot about political and social issues on Facebook, but now it’s a little bit scary to talk about these sensitive issues because I’m afraid I’m going to get in trouble,” Meng said.

Internet censorship

Cambodia’s government monitors social media.

Last May, Cambodia’s Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications, Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Information, issued a regulation to monitor Facebook.

The government stated that it wants to control information that is deemed to “threaten the defence and security of the nation, relations with other countries, the economy, public order, and discriminates against the country’s customs and traditions.”

The Cambodia Center for Independent Media stated in its 2017 report that seven Facebook users were either arrested or sought by authorities for sharing information and opinions on the social media platform.

In 2018, an election year, the number is unknown.

“The directive was actually released after they were already identifying, monitoring, charging and imprisoning people,” said Naly Pilorge, director at LICADHO, a human rights monitoring group in Cambodia.

During the election in July, 17 news websites – including RFA, VOA and Cambodia Daily (already closed down in 2017) – were ordered offline for 48 hours.

Critics believe internet censorship is intended to stop outlawed Cambodia National Rescue Party supporters inside the country from sharing, liking or commenting on election boycott campaigns.

“The directive came afterwards to legalise what they were doing in practice already. And it changed the habits of the average [social media] user,” Pilorge added. “The people online that we interact with, we see that there are differences. Definitely people are afraid, hesitant, paralysed. Ourselves included. We’re cautious.”

In the lead-up to this year’s election, all independent media was shut down. The main opposition leader was jailed for alleged treason. Two former Radio Free Asia reporters and an Australian filmmaker were jailed for alleged espionage.

Several human rights and political activists languish inside Cambodia’s prisons – guilty until proven innocent according to LICADHO.

“What you’ve seen over the past year and a half is, for example, a minister or the prime minister decides a post is critical or is unacceptable and will immediately denounce a Facebook post,” Pilorge said. “Within 48 hours this individual is being arrested, charged, imprisoned in pre-trial detention and sometimes convicted.”

Increasing regulation

Though the election is over, censorship online is prevalent. Prime Minister Hun Sen was re-elected last month in a vote criticised by the UN as fundamentally flawed.

“If the situation for freedom of expression worsens, maybe we will have something that we can do together in order to inform [Cambodians] which tool or application they can use without getting into any trouble,” Meng said.

Cambodian digital security trainer Moses Ngeth teaches journalists, activists and human rights campaigners how to secure accounts, and protect data online.

“I train them how to do very basic device security for smartphones, password protection. I tell them to be careful when posting something to social media and not to share any personal information,” he said.

Ngeth believes this new mandate will give the ruling CPP legitimacy to pass its much-anticipated draft cybercrime law.

“People cannot talk on the radio, or on television. It leaves only Facebook. That’s why they increased regulation of social media,” Ngeth said.

Cambodians can still be arrested, charged, jailed or fined for Facebook posts under criminal defamation, royal defamation laws, or incitement.

“I think it’s natural to have fear, but when I see someone is arrested for saying something on social media I don’t feel comfortable. I think that people should feel free to express themselves,” said Kounila Keo, a Cambodian blogger and communications consultant.

Prime Minister Hun Sen has amassed over 10 million followers on Facebook.

Sam Rainsy, the exiled former CNRP leader who ran in the 2013 elections, claims that many are not even Cambodian and may be fake online profiles generated abroad – an accusation the prime minister refutes.

“What [the prime minister] said … ‘When you post, I can know the location’ – it’s one of the funniest things I’ve heard from him,” Ngeth said. “Using Facebook to know the location, it’s not possible,” Ngeth said.

Prime Minister Hun Sen and members of the CPP are using Facebook to bypass traditional news media such as newspapers, radio and television, viewed as hostile to the government, to reach Cambodians directly with their messages.

“The prime minister and other public figures campaign on Facebook,” said Ngeth.

Back at the Politikoffee debate, the upcoming cybercrime law is considered for discussion in a future forum.

Meng wants members to be able to communicate online without being punished for spreading “fake news” for commenting on the draft law.

“Now we’re thinking about [developing] a new tool, or a new kind of app, that we can be sure will be safe for us to talk about any issue because we mostly discuss politics,” Meng said.

“We’re not doing anything to harm society. We’re doing it to make society a better place, especially [for] youth to be able to share ideas and contribute.”

Published @AlJazeera

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Cambodia 2018 Election Report: ‘The Crackdown Continues’ – CBC The World this Hour

PHNOM PENH – July 29, 2018 was Cambodia’s sixth general election since the UN organized the country’s first free and fair elections in 1993.

For the last 25 years, Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen has used elections as a way to legitimize his rule (33 years and counting). In 2017, the main opposition party was dissolved and its leader thrown into prison on treason charges.

Two local journalists and one Australian filmmaker – alongside political activists – languish inside jail cells under pre-trial detention.

Independent media in Cambodia has been shut down and forced to use its online platforms to inform citizens, in the Khmer language. But 17 of these news websites were ordered offline for 48 hours during the election.

Cambodia Election Report ‘The Crackdown Continues’ aired on CBC The World This Hour Monday, July 30, 2018.

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Cambodia’s Election Targets Social Media – CBC The World this Weekend

PHNOM PENH – The government of Cambodia’s new ministerial decree bans “fake news” from social media.

Prime Minister Hun Sen has vowed police will arrest and prosecute Cambodians spreading false information online – such as members of the banned opposition party’s plan to boycott the July 29th elections: dubbed “the clean finger” campaign.

Now it’s monitoring and filtering Cambodians online according to some of the country’s most prominent social media users. Featuring Catherine Harry from A Dose of Cath (pictured); Samoeurth Seavmeng from Politikoffee; and Mory Sar from Cambodia Youth Network.

This story aired on CBC The World this Weekend Saturday, July 21, 2018.

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The UN Wants Thousands of Myanmar Refugees to Return Home

Here’s what’s waiting for them.

2018-06-22 14.16.53

Thant Zin Maung, 49, at his home in Yangon, Myanmar

YANGON, Myanmar – I met Thant Zin Maung at his modest home in Hlaing Township, a low-income district in Myanmar’s old capital, Yangon. I was in Myanmar to figure out if the United Nations’ claims that parts of the country were safe enough for the nearly 100,000 refugees currently living in camps in neighboring Thailand to return were true.

Maung, 49, was one of the earliest returnees, choosing to move back to his native Myanmar after spending a decade in a refugee camp on the Thai-Myanmar border.

He opened his front door, cinching his longyi—a traditional cloth—tight around his stomach before explaining how he ended up in a Thai refugee camp in the first place. For Maung, it all started back in August of 1988. On August 8, 1988—8/8/88—student-led protests seized Yangon, then the capital of Myanmar, that called for the end of military rule. The military responded with harsh crackdowns. An estimated 3,000 protestors were killed, and another 10,000 fled the country. Maung was one of them.

“I left Myanmar because I was involved in the 1988 democracy protests,” Maung said. “But I went to Thailand for work. Legally.”

But he told me that was soon arrested in Thailand for providing aid to other, undocumented, migrants from Myanmar. After his arrest, the Thai authorities revoked his work permit. Without the right to legally work, and fearing repercussions from the military junta if he returned to Myanmar, Maung chose to register as a refugee instead.

Maung spent the next ten years living in Nupo refugee camp in Thailand’s Tak province, close to the Myanmar border. At Nupo, he met his wife and started a family.

His wife suffered from a debilitating stroke in the camp and needed care and he wanted his children to receive a formal education, so in October 2016 Maung and his family participated in the UN Refugee Agency’s pilot repatriation program. They were a part of the first batch of 71 refugees who made their way back to Myanmar with financial assistance from the UN and the Thai and Myanmar governments. Then, in May, UNHCR repatriated a second batch of refugees, 93 in total, to communities in Myanmar’s Kayin and Kayah states.

Among this group were 20 ethnic Karenni refugees returning for the first time to Kayah, where a fragile ceasefire agreement holds between the Myanmar military—known as the Tatmadaw—and a local armed group called the Karenni Army. And in Kayin, where the majority of ethnic Karen refugees in Thailand originate, tension between the Tatmadaw and another local armed group called Karen National Liberation Army has caused many to opt out of the repatriation program.

The UN Refugee Agency expected thousands of refugees to participate in the repatriation program. But with the peace process in places like Kayah still ongoing, many are choosing to wait and see.

And with Tatmadaw military offensives taking place against armed groups in Rakhine, Kachin and Shan, many fear fighting could resume in Kayin and Kayah at any moment.

Thailand isn’t a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention. Officially, Myanmar nationals without valid work permits are only allowed to remain in Thailand if they are registered with UNHCR at one of the camps. But Myanmar migrant workers and refugees can find under-the-table work near the border. Some working illegally in Bangkok are at greater risk of arrest and deportation.

Refugees in Thailand are restricted from leaving the camps, and are not allowed to work. Humanitarian assistance, primarily food, is provided but many argue necessities have been reduced significantly in recent years because of continued budget cuts by aid agencies. It’s these cuts that have left some human rights groups to question whether the repatriation program is even all that voluntary in the first place.

“I don’t know how UNHCR can say that it’s a voluntary return,” said Leena Zieger, the director of Burma Link, a human rights group based in Mae Sot, Thailand. “Refugee repatriation needs to be genuinely voluntary and it should not be reinforced by these outside factors like cutting rations and assistance in the camps.”

Since 2012, some 18,000 refugees have returned to Myanmar from camps in Thailand without any form of assistance, according to The Border Consortium, an aid group. It’s unknown whether those refugees gave up their UNHCR cards and returned permanently or were economic migrants living in the camps temporarily as they searched for work opportunities.

And for those who choose to comply with the UN program, the reality of their life back in Myanmar might not be exactly what they were promised. According to Karen Human Rights Group, 2,400 Karen villagers are still displaced from their homes because of conflict to date.

One aid worker I met—who asked their name not to be printed—in the Kayah capital of Loikaw told me that authorities were not doing enough to help these new arrivals reintegrate back into their communities in southeast Myanmar.

When Maung returned to Myanmar, the government provided temporary shelter to four families—including his—or 19 people in total. But almost immediately they were denied the assistance promised under the agreement, Maung said.

“I wasn’t getting any support in terms of finding a job, in terms of health care for my wife or education for my children, so I had to look for work right away,” Maung told me. “I was able to receive help from my sister.”

A Myanmar woman named Thae Thae lived with her family in one of the camps until 2013. She said that the election of Aung San Suu Kyi was the motivating factor for her family’s decision to return to Myanmar without the help of UNHCR. She said there was a lot of confusion at that time around the refugee repatriation program.

“At first it was very hostile,” she said. “Most refugees didn’t want to return to Myanmar. There was tension because they thought UNHCR was [forcibly] sending them back.”

Maung took a seat next to me and loosened the knot on his longyi. He said his children are now attending a school across the street from his new home, and his wife is receiving care from family while he’s out working every day. His life isn’t perfect, but it’s still a life.

“I sell groceries and lottery tickets now,” he said. “My sister rents me her car so I have a mobile shop. I’m struggling but we’re happy. Our lives have improved in Yangon. I want a better life for my kids. I have to work hard for that to happen.”

Published @VICE

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Myanmar’s Anti-War Generation

2018-06-22 10.59.08 HDR

Esther Naw, 23, in Sanchaung, Yangon, Myanmar

YANGON – “Without ending war we can’t move forward as a nation,” said 23-year-old Myanmar peace activist Esther Naw.

Naw is under constant surveillance by Yangon’s Special Branch of the police, run by Myanmar’s Ministry of Home Affairs – one of the three ministries under Tatmadaw, or military control.

“They came to my church three times and asked my pastor if he knows me. They show my photo and my name to people. They tell people to tell me to report to the police station for questioning,” she said.

Naw brushes it all off as an intimidation tactic used by the authorities to silence young people in Myanmar, especially those who are ethnically Kachin like her.

“We have to continue talking about peace and nonviolence because it’s been three generations suffering from the civil war. We still have to go on for the development of our nation,” Naw said. “This is our first priority.”

Naw helped organize street protests last April against a military offensive in Myanmar’s Kachin state that displaced 20,000 villagers from their homes.

One hundred and fifty thousand are now living as refugees in Myanmar’s north.

A 17-year ceasefire between the Tatmadaw and the Kachin Independence Army was broken in 2011. Since then fighting between the two armed groups has continually devastated Kachin and Shan states.

Hundreds of people took to the streets around the country to demand humanitarian access to the displaced villagers, caught in the conflict zone between both warring parties earlier this year.

Forty-seven activists were arrested in Yangon, Mandalay and Myitikina, the capital of Kachin state, where protests began.

“The civil war isn’t only happening in Kachin [state]. It’s happening in peoples’ minds. They use media to spread propaganda. They use police to threaten us. People are afraid to raise their voice and speak up against discrimination,” Naw said.

Myanmar began its democratic transition in 2012 with the election of Aung San Suu Kyi to parliament. Three years later, in 2015, her National League for Democracy party took power in the capital, Naypyidaw.

But the NLD government is unwilling to challenge military dominance in Myanmar. The UN has accused the Tatmadaw of committing war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide against minorities.

“Even though my family was discriminated against and unfairly targeted because we’re [ethnic] Kachin, and Christian, my people didn’t teach me hatred and told me to work for those being discriminated [against],” Naw said.

Books not Bombs in Burma

Myanmar’s de facto leader, Suu Kyi, once wrote about the need for public libraries to foster a reading culture in Myanmar and give every citizen access to books.

Naw has done this in the refugee camps of the north where no formal educational programs exist. Over the last seven years families have survived, and children have been born, as refugees in their homeland without basic services, deprived of the rights enjoyed by most Burmese.

“I was 17 when I began my activism. The war resumed in Kachin state and I wanted to help my people,” Naw said. “I’ve opened 24 libraries in camps located across Kachin and Shan states. I call it Candle Library Foundation.”

Myanmar’s government wants to shut down the 140 refugee, or internally displaced people (IDP), camps around the country, as recommended by the Kofi Annan Commission. But there’s no plan to allow displaced villagers to return to their homes in Kachin, Shan and Rakhine states.

“The international media isn’t allowed to go in. The humanitarian organizations aren’t allowed either. The news is underreported. That is why now I’m thinking about advocating for IDPs at the UN,” Naw said.

Despite being a full-time university student working on her thesis, Naw is committed to building a youth-led peace movement in Myanmar.

“People are proud of anyone who stands up, including Esther. We celebrate any individual who steps up and highlights our suffering. When someone chooses to raise their voice to share what the community is going through, it’s a risk,” said Stella Naw (no relation), Burma Program Officer at Civil Rights Defenders.

“She’s bridging the divide between youth from different ethnic groups,” said David Gyung Hkawng, Youth Pastor at Kachin Baptist Church. “Esther is an activist. She’s really a great young lady. I think one day she will be a great leader.”

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