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Cabinet spokesman shares wisdoms, experiences gained as journo, author

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Ek Tha (left) meets with information minister Khieu Kanharith at the ministry on Wednesday. SUPPLIED

Cabinet spokesman shares wisdoms, experiences gained as journo, author

Ek Tha is a former journalist who now works as the spokesperson for the Office of the Council of Ministers. He also serves as an adviser to the Ministry of Information and is the standing vice-chairman of the Royal Government’s Spokesperson Unit. On top of those responsibilities, Tha is an author who has written several books in English, with more on the way.

In an interview with The Post, he shared his experiences working as a journalist in the past and being a government spokesman presently, as well as his side-career as a historian and author of historical fiction.

When did you start your career as a journalist? What motivated you to pursue a career in that field?

I began my journalism career in 1994 after working as an interpreter for the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) then under the name Ek Madra. I used that name for my safety and survival as the civil war continued in many parts of the country.

I moved from one province to another mainly in northwest Cambodia – right after I completed high school in 1989 – the year that Vietnamese troops withdrew from Cambodia. Full peace returned to Cambodia and I returned to using my old name, Ek Tha.

There were several factors that inspired me to work as a journalist.

First, I had observed that media outlets – both national and international – did not adequately cover the news at the time and in some ways failed to tell the big picture story about Cambodia’s civil war that inflicted serious harm on this nation and her people.

During that time, infrastructure had reverted almost to ground zero. I had told myself that I would do my best to present all of the relevant facts along with serious analysis of them through my writing for a global audience.

For example, when I wrote my first book – Factors Contributing to Cambodia’s Civil War 1950s – 1980s: Lessons Then & Now – I vowed to include all of the relevant factors, both domestic and external, while maintaining a fair balance. This helped readers better understand the complex situation in Cambodia.

Second, I see journalism in the role of the messenger who conveys statements from the leadership to the public and at the same time gets feedback from the public. That trend helps society be aware of what is happening and I believe it contributes to sustainable development.

Third, as a son of Cambodia, I have an obligation to use the knowledge I’ve accumulated from studies inside the country and overseas to tell the truth, which I do through the media, which is a considered a soft power, and that enables the people to achieve a greater understanding of what the facts mean to themselves and others.

The real news is likened to a mirror reflecting what is happening and what could happen so that they are ready when it comes to making decisions pertaining to politics, diplomacy, security, economics, trade, investment and even their personal life. In other words, receiving real news through the media is considered valuable input for readers to better analyze the facts with a comprehensive approach to dealing with the issues.

How has your career as a journalist influenced your current career in government?

My working experience in the field of media has helped me to a great extent when it comes to dealing with national and international issues.

For national issues, I learned a great deal about Cambodia’s domestic politics then and now, including the developing trends of Southeast-Asian nations from one government to another, the political culture, the attitudes and characteristics of Cambodia’s politicians and leaders, as well as the political judgments and values of Cambodia through different time periods.

Those lessons shaped me to be open-minded with far-sighted vision while accepting input and feedback through the process of inclusiveness. I also gained a broad base of knowledge from my working experience from 1994 to 2009, given the fact that I covered a wide range of events including domestic politics, economics, trade, diplomacy, the military, security, the law and even culture, sports and the environment.

How did your working for the government come about? What motivated that move?

After more than 15 years working as journalist – including my time as a Reuters correspondent in Cambodia for more than 10 years – I started to realize that I should contribute and share my experience with the government by working in the field of public affairs and communications.

It is very important that the government’s press officers know how to improve the management of information flows in order to maintain social and public order for the interest of the nation, her people and its global image.

I would also like to contribute to better relations and two-way communications between government spokespersons and the mass media so as to avoid any misunderstandings about the roles and responsibilities each of them have.

What difficulties have you encountered working as a government spokesman?

The government spokesperson’s job is no bed of roses, in fact. Meaning all of their work has to deal with making careful responses and taking holistic approaches in order to protect the interests of the institution, the government and the nation at large.

Speaking for myself personally, however, I have had difficulties with a number of challenges such as when journalists’ questions are beyond my capacity and jurisdiction to answer.

I’m only designated as a spokesperson at the Office of the Council of Ministers (OCM) and that means that I can’t access information from other government ministries and their affiliated institutions.

And what I find most challenging is when foreign journalists ask critical questions about the military and security issues as well as diplomacy – which are not under my remit at OCM – and I’m unable to answer them for that reason.

My roles and responsibilities are specific to certain areas and that means I can’t answer some questions that get tossed at me by journalists, but I can refer them to other spokespersons instead.

You’ve also had an active career as an author of books over the years. What inspired you to dedicate yourself to literary pursuits?

There are a number of things which inspired me to write books. First, I would like my readers to remember the past. I would like to see Cambodia’s younger generation learn more and gain a deeper understanding of the complex history of their country and what factors contributed to our nation’s plunge into civil war.

I would like to see the younger generation closely study our own difficult history so we can avoid repeating it.

At the same time, I would like to see the readers of my books in English – both national and international – join hands today for the common future interest.

As everyone knows, getting people to remember the past is not always easy. Therefore, I have transformed portions of our factual history into novels that combine Khmer culture, tradition, loss and love, sorrow and sacrifice, laughing and crying, dollars and diplomacy, among other elements.

In other words, I still believe readers may get bored with learning history in a stack of purely factual books, but if we teach them through historical fiction with a plot similar to a movie, the artistic aspects will then intrigue readers from all walks of life and that will help them, I believe, avoid repeating the awful experiences of the past.

In my two novels – Fight the Enemy, Find Love and Long Love, Short Life – I integrated Cambodia’s memories of not only politics, but also traditions, culture, foreign interference in Cambodia’s domestic affairs, the values of Cambodia’s way of life as well as the values of Cambodia’s leaders then and now.

I believe that through the simple English phrases I penned I can partially contribute to changing the mind-set of people from seeing one another as enemies to seeing each other as friends and educating people to rise up with love, compassion and humanitarian values in their hearts that contribute to bringing about a harmonious society.

How many books have you written? Do you have any unpublished books you’re working on currently?

I have written and published four books. The two novels I just mentioned plus the history of the civil war I spoke about earlier and then my fourth and latest book is actually a combined edition of those first three and titled Cambodia: Memories of Politics, War & Love.

A coming book I have been working on and plan to publish is about modern Cambodia in the new global context. It focuses on factors like Cambodia’s domestic challenges and its foreign diplomacy that contributes to Cambodia’s growing role overseas.

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