17 December 2007. Forty-eight saffron-robed Buddhist monks convened peacefully in front of the Vietnamese embassy in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. They were there to submit a petition calling for the release of an ethnically Cambodian activist monk imprisoned in Vietnam, the resolution of land issues and respect for minority rights in Vietnam. In response, the Cambodian Ministry of the Interior sent anti-riot forces who attacked the monks, beat them with electric batons, and chased them through the streets for four blocks, telling shocked passers-by that they weren't really monks.
Two monks were seriously injured after being shocked by batons on the back of their heads, causing one to lose consciousness. Four others suffered minor injuries. The incident is all the more shocking in a country that identifies itself as Buddhist and typically reveres monks. The incident was not mentioned in the international press.
19 June 2007. Eight expatriates were arrested in Cambodia. An unusual event, it made international news at least briefly. The eight foreigners were protesting in front of the Bilateral Donor Meetings, where Cambodian leaders justify their ongoing corruption to countries who give them aid with little accountability. They were riding a truck with banners protesting the imprisonment of two young men framed for the assassination of a union leader. After a few turns, police stopped the truck, pulled out the driver and drove the truck with the protesters in it to the Immigration Police. The foreigners were detained in the office for roughly eight hours.
During that time, they were able to order pizza and receive visitors. They were asked to sign a document saying what they had done was illegal and that they wouldn't do it again. Worried about how this would affect their ability to renew their visas to stay in Cambodia in the future, they refused to sign the document, and were eventually able to negotiate to sign a document that said that they wouldn't do it again, but that didn't say that what they had done was illegal. To date, none of the foreigners have experienced further repercussions from the incident.
Foreigners in Cambodia
Consider the contrast between the reaction of the Cambodian government in those two stories. Whether it is the lingering legacy of colonialism, a respect for tourism dollars, or current dependency upon foreign aid, there is no doubt that foreigners have tremendous immunity in Cambodia.
Foreign newspapers can print stories (even in Khmer, the language of Cambodia) that local newspapers couldn't touch. Foreign non-government organizations can print reports critical of the government with only occasional repercussions, while Cambodian opposition government officials, human rights defenders, and journalists are routinely threatened and sometimes assassinated. Even on an interpersonal level, foreigners, particularly Western foreigners and especially those with white skin, are assumed to be experts and attributed with social status and education often undeservedly.
The reality is that my family can safely attend a protest or peace rally as foreigners in Cambodia that Cambodians could only attend at great risk. As foreigners, we have a tremendous opportunity to use this unmerited power to advocate for justice, bring international attention to issues of injustice, and even to extend some protection to Cambodian activists.
While not trying to be a “voice” for Cambodians, who are perfectly capable of being their own voice for justice, Christians in Cambodia have provided protective accompaniment to local human rights defenders and witnesses to government actions against communities as a deterrent to violence. The presence of a white face is enough to remind the police evicting poor communities or the judge at a trial that the world is watching. Foreign Christians have also met with their own embassies, many of whom represent countries that are foreign aid donors to Cambodia, to enlist their help in pressuring the government of Cambodia to follow the rule of law.
Using “Outsider” Status for Good
An excellent example of how Christian foreigners can use their outsider status to support community efforts without squashing the community's own initiative happened recently in Phnom Penh. A network of communities brought over three hundred community leaders to the capital to represent land disputes in twenty different provinces of Cambodia.
They came to present petitions to government ministries and to meet with the United Nations. Because the land issue is so politically fraught, they were unable to secure accommodation and were even turned away from Buddhist temples, where widows, students, and the poor from the countryside typically stay. Foreigners from the Christians for Social Justice group were able to host roughly fifty of the community leaders in their homes. The rest stayed in NGO offices. While some of those staying in the NGO offices were hassled by police, none of the foreigners even had the police check up on them. The foreigners were able to support the community leaders in a way that empowered their actions and offered a degree of security.
So often in living cross-culturally, being an outsider is a disadvantage. We don't speak the language. We continually embarrass ourselves and others through our ignorance of the culture. As Western Christians, we bring with us our own cultural baggage of materialism and individualism. But in the struggle for God's justice for the oppressed, the outsider has a unique opportunity to leverage national efforts to seek justice and peace. This represents a “talent” that I believe God will ultimately hold us accountable to unearth and use for the good of his kingdom.
I frequently hear missionaries say they “stay out of politics” in their host country, focusing instead on strictly “spiritual” matters. The Kingdom of God, however, tolerates no such false dichotomies. We see in Jesus' ministry a regard for both the spiritual and physical healing of his people. We do not follow an apolitical messiah, but a cleverly political messiah, who was aware of timing and of how his actions were being interpreted by the wider culture, who was able to engage us on all levels of our being and our society, yet was also able to sidestep those who tried to contain his kingdom.
The truth is that the color of our skin or the country on our passport shouldn't afford us any additional privileges. However, the current reality of the world is that they do and exploiting that fact for the good of God's children is an effective way of demonstrating the good news of Christ for the poor.
As Cambodia gains more international exposure and becomes more globalized, the mystique of the outsider will, rightly, diminish. But for now in Cambodia, and I suspect in other contexts as well, the outsider can harness the power and safety of being foreign to stand alongside the oppressed for the glory of God's kingdom.
1. From press release by lLICADHO.