The stage at this year's TEDxPP, hosted at Pannasastra University (South Campus). Photograph: Shelby Doyle/Phnom Penh Post
The grand finale at Phnom Penh’s much-ballyhooed TEDx event on Saturday was intended to send a message.
Several activists, among them Loun Savath and the son of the late Chut Wutty, would stand before an audience of 600 and read accounts of violent land disputes.
Images from clashes between government forces and evictees would play in the background. That was the plan, anyway, until sponsors and a dean from host institution Pannasastra University saw the dress rehearsal on Friday.
The decision that followed was swift – the show must not go on.
“Our internal regulations at our school prohibit any political rallies and political manifestations of any kind,” Raymond Leos, dean of communications and media arts, said yesterday.
The cancelled performance came to light over the weekend when a surreptitious recording of Friday’s meeting was posted on the internet.
The move has since been decried by human rights groups as a fresh example of self-censorship and a lack of free expression in the Kingdom.
“This is supposedly the most prestigious university in Cambodia; it’s really shameful that a private entity in education would prevent a panel of activists from talking about social issues,” Licadho director Naly Pilorge said.
Earlier this year, the Royal University of Law and Economics research department announced a list of prohibited thesis topics that included land disputes, the Cambodian Red Cross – headed by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s wife, Bun Rany – and conflict surrounding labour issues.
At the time, the university said the ban was to prevent plagiarism. But rights groups pointed to the political nature of the topics as being the true catalyst.
The Post reported in 2010 on the Ministry of Information's effort to withdraw textbooks from bookshops across the country, following a letter from the Education minister saying they contained “unsuitable political content”.
Leos, who said the cancellation call was a tough one to make, defended it yesterday.
“I made a decision based on my position as an administrator and a dean of what was in the best interest of the school and the students. And also, [because] this was not an appropriate venue for such a performance,” he said.
As an extra fail-safe, university administrators made those involved in TEDx sign contracts agreeing to the decision.
His opinions were shared by others, among them TEDx participants, many of whom, like Leos, weren’t privy to the new act until last week.
“Everything was kept as secret as possible,” explained one of the main TEDx organisers, Allison Hoffman.
She said the idea started not long after Chut Wutty was shot dead in April.
“I felt like these activists deserved a stage.”
She and a few colleagues kept the planning covert because of the subject matter’s sensitivity. Months of practice went on behind the scenes.
On the brochure, it was listed only as “Ensemble Grand Finale”.
Some felt that TEDx events, which are independent spin-offs of the TED – Technology, Entertainment and Design – talks popular in the US, should not engage in politics.
The performance, had it gone on, would certainly have differed from other offerings at Phnom Penh’s TEDx, a line-up stocked with cheerful, inspiring tales about succeeding in life and overcoming obstacles.
Leos hopes the fallout hasn’t tainted the other speakers who took to the stage.
“It’s unfortunate that this incident, and the publishing of these tapes, has taken away the focus on what I thought was a great day on Saturday – a great, uplifting day with some great speakers.”
The released script of the blocked presentation, with its accounts of shootings, land disputes, prison terms and evictions, stretches back to 2003 and reads like a grand jury indictment:
“SEPTEMBER 15, 2004. Poipet. In Kbal Spean, 5 people are killed by uniformed police and military police, marking the first killing fueled by forced evictions.”
“JUNE 2006. The remains of the over 1000-family strong Sambok Chap community are awoken at 5am by municipal and military police armed with guns, tear gas, batons and riot shields.”
This history of violence would have reached its apex when the late Chut Wutty’s son, Chheuy Udom Reaksmey, 19, stepped up to the microphone and read his opening lines: “My father Chut Wutty was killed by an AK-47,” begins his explanation of the environmentalist’s demise.
He expressed disappointment yesterday with the decision to pull the plug.
“They are scared because my topic is hot and it will affect their university, that’s why they did not allow us to do it,” he said.
Activist monk Loun Sovath, recently detained when he attended a rally in support of Boeung Kak evictees who had been arrested, said the presentation wasn’t aimed at the government.
“We did not [attack] the government, but we just said the real situation happening in society,” he said.