Buddhist monks have become new the emissaries of human rights in Cambodia, using Twitter and Facebook Live to broadcast news of enduring endemic corruption, poverty, and political repression that plagues the country. While many of us complain about President Trump using Twitter to subvert the free press and broadcast his own political agenda, there are still opportunities for social media channels to be used to do what an independent media often cannot: report on the ground in real-time from locations where freedom of speech is restricted, bringing to light issues that would have otherwise slipped under the radar. The availability of these channels is already a battleground for repressive regimes, with internet shutdowns replacing crackdowns on press outlets or restrictions on freedom of movement into and out of the country.
Cambodian politics may be best known for the brutal regime of the Khmer Rouge, the heavily-armed Communist group led by Pol Pot that ruled the country for four years of violence, starvation, and repression while attempting to build an agrarian utopia in the 1970s. The genocide took place when much of the world was focusing on Vietnam, but Hollywood brought this story to international attention through the 1984 film The Killing Fields, a British drama based on the experiences of two journalists, American Sydney Schanberg and Cambodian Dith Pran, who covered the military coup that toppled the capital, Phnom Penh, and brought Pol Pot to power.
When Sydney Schanberg and the rest of the remaining foreign journalists evacuated from Phnom Penh in 1975, unable to take Dith Pran or any other Cambodians with them, the country became largely closed to the outside world. Pol Pot isolated the country, allowing in only three Western journalists (one of whom was murdered) and tightly controlling what they were able to see during their trip. Inside Cambodia, intellectuals were executed, reeducation camps were established, and citizens were not allowed to gather in groups of more than three people, all of which helped to prevent Cambodian journalists from reporting about the situation on the ground. The Killing Fields was, for many around the world, an introduction to the violence and repression that had occurred under the rule of the Khmer Rouge, and it was not until after the movie was released in the mid-1980s, and genocide survivors began receiving more publicity, that the U.S. government stopped supporting the former Khmer Rouge government.
Had the internet been a worldwide phenomenon during Pol Pot’s time, it is possible that history would have played out differently, provided the government did not restrict web access. Cambodians could have posted videos and told stories to the world without interference, brining greater awareness and transparency to politics without having to rely on foreign journalists to spread the word (though having a story picked up by a major international news outlet certainly does not hurt). This sort of activity is playing out right now through Facebook Live, where Cambodian monks are reporting on human rights violations. The Cambodian People’s Party controls all of the country’s TV stations, while the opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party, has been unable to get a television license. Unsurprisingly, Cambodia ranks quite low on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, number 156 out of 176. Press freedom is low, corruption is high, and civil society activities that might criticize the government are restricted. So, monks like Luon Sovath and But Buntenh have turned to Facebook Live to show Cambodians—and the world—the corruption and abuses not shown on state-run television. Both monks live streamed videos of the recent election, including interviews with voters and descriptions of procedures, and those videos were watched by thousands of people who engaged with the monks and showed support when Luon Sovath was kicked out of a polling place.
The availability of these channels make human rights abuses increasingly difficult to ignore in the way that the Khmer Rouge genocide was ignored at the time, when access to the country was so restricted that few knew the extent of what was happening within its borders. As technology evolves, however, so do regimes. Cambodia, unlike Cameroon, India, Egypt, and a handful of others, has not yet turned to internet shutdowns, but certainly could. Categories like access to the internet being added to international monitors like Transparency International and the World Press Freedom index would help track not only the ability to citizens within each country to freely access information, but also the ability for people to get information out of the country’s borders and raise awareness before another event, like a genocide, can take place.