Each one of us occasionally has been under the scrutiny and judging gaze of another;
we feel uneasy, uncomfortable, inhibited, stifled, and drained of energy, unable
to be much else but awkwardly self-conscious.
Now, imagine a society where you could be monitored and watched at every second of
the day or night, every day of the week, every week of the year - possibly all the
time. Imagine a society in which those with power theoretically can always listen
in, watch, monitor your every move, no matter how private and intimate the occasion,
and then use the exchange as evidence against you legally and publicly.
Imagine no private space, no private conversation, because everything could eventually
be made known - when you talk politics with your friends; when you speak intimately
with a lover; when you go to work; when you take a shower. Such intrusion and surveillance
by the State has devastating effects on the self and the nation. Under the relentless
chilling gaze of the State, people live in fear of being judged and even persecuted
for mistakes, which would otherwise be lessons in growth and self-development. When
individuals are no longer afforded the private space to try and make mistakes, and
learn from their mistakes under the shade of trust and confidence and away from outside
scrutiny, personal development is stunted.
Self censorship takes hold and individuals become increasingly afraid to share their
opinions. They live in constant fear of slipping up; they become suffocated by the
continuous pressure of maintaining this façade.
Distrust and suspicion become widespread as individuals wonder who may be helping
to monitor them. Is it their neighbor? Their boss? Their best friend? Their spouse?
Their child? They learn to see others only as potential enemies, not as fellow human
beings. They themselves cease to be fully human. Eventually they grow so accustomed
to smothering their own characteristics and opinions that their individuality is
extinguished. Rather, they become mechanical, automated, slavish, unable to truly
live as vibrant and free individuals. It is as if they cannot even breathe by their
own will; they are only robotic extensions of the State.
A monitored life is an imprisoned, inhibited life that stifles all creativity, imagination,
growth, genuineness, trust, everything that is of any worth and meaning in daily
life. Unfortunately, the society described above is a reality in some places in the
world, and is nearing reality here in present-day Cambodia as the right to privacy
is increasingly diminished. Under the newly-adopted Criminal Procedure Code and the
envisioned draft law against terrorism, broad measures of intrusion into private
lives are permitted in the pursuit of combating crimes and terrorism.
The Right to Privacy under the Khmer Rouge
The erosion of privacy in Cambodia takes on a more sinister implication in light
of our current history when the Khmer Rouge completely abolished all privacy, individual
rights where we lived in constant fear and distrust, and where even children eavesdropped
and reported on their own parents.
The Right to Privacy Today: Danger Zone
Thirty years later, the kind of Orwellian society that Cambodians witnessed in the
late 1970s threatens to return. The current government has been known to monitor
and record individuals' phone conversations in order to discredit or imprison political
opponents. Indeed, Prince Norodom Sirivudh was stripped of his political immunity
in 1995 based on a phone conversation that was secretly recorded. Police searches
of private homes without a warrant are a routine occurrence. These problems will
be exacerbated under the new Criminal Procedure Code which allows for phone tapping,
and the envisioned Anti-Terrorism bill, which allows for nearly limitless governmental
surveillance of individuals in the name of national and international security. Even
if it could be argued that privacy rights must be occasionally infringed upon in
the name of security, such invasions must be infrequent, and only in the most extreme
cases, and the secretly tapped exchange should not be used as evidence, but only
a lead to other more substantive evidence. We must not become a society in which,
as Herbert Packer put it, "all are safe but none are free".
We cannot allow Cambodia to retreat back into the time of Pol Pot, in which the threat
of constant surveillance forced us to literally shut our mouths and stand by while
corruption and human rights abuses abound. Tragically, the world described in the
beginning of this column is all too easy to imagine because we have already lived
through these circumstances once, and the residue of fear is still a reality.
Though privacy rights are currently under attack all over the world, Cambodia is
particularly vulnerable. While many other nations have institutions and concrete
statutory protections that can counter a government's overzealous monitoring of its
population, Cambodia still lacks many such measures. For example, in Canada, a federal
Privacy Commissioner exists to investigate complaints around and challenge excessive
intrusions into the privacy of individuals. Japan passed the Interception Law in
1999, authorizing wiretapping in the investigation but restricting its use to prosecutors
and police officers of a certain rank. Additionally, these officials are required
to obtain a warrant before monitoring, and to notify those monitored after the investigation.
In countries like Canada, Japan and the United States, an extremely high threshold
exists before an intrusive measure is even raised for debate. Moreover, these countries
have counter-balancing power of strong institutions and sophisticated technology
to test and challenge the legitimacy and genuineness of wiretapping, computer tampering
etc. to prevent potential abuse. These protective measures are lacking in Cambodia.
Unfortunately, while the right to privacy is more difficult to protect in Cambodia,
there is also a much greater need for it. Cambodia remains a very fragile society
which is still rebuilding itself. We, Khmers, remain distrustful of each other, of
foreigners; we lack confidence in our ability to control the happenings in our lives.
Such distrust and lack of confidence will only be worsened by the constant pressure
that comes with extensive governmental surveillance. Without the ability to feel
comfortable taking risks, making mistakes, and asking questions, we Khmers will find
it more difficult to develop the insight and vision required to undertake the re-building
our individual selves and society.
Privacy Rights are Universal and Must Be Realized
To be human is to be free. We are not free and it is mental imprisonment when we
live under the constant, eerie gaze of the State. Hence, the right to privacy is
so sacred to human existence. The intrusions strip us of our individuality, examining
and prodding at our thoughts until such thoughts are "acceptable" in the
eyes of those in power. Freedom of religion means little if we cannot pray in solitude
or gather in private for religious worship. Freedom to marry the person of one's
choice is diminished if partners cannot share intimate moments and expressions of
their feelings away from prying eyes. A right to actively participate in political
life does not truly exist when individuals are forced to fall silent and not debate.
Privacy is not a privilege, it is a right, universally desired and recognized.
This right to privacy is the very heart of human dignity. It is the foundation upon
which we build our personality and aspirations, make relationships, and think creatively
and critically. Who, being watched, can give in to their emotions with abandon, can
jump for joy or howl in sorrow? Who, being listened in on, can express their deepest
desire or their greatest fear, can share their most intimate secret, or can challenge
injustices perpetrated by the powers-that-be? Who, under the threat of constant public
scrutiny, can cast convention aside and "think outside the box"?
Intrusions into our privacy force the creative, the wise, the dreamers, and the critics
to fall in line out of fear. Without privacy there can be no true passion, intimacy,
or uniqueness - thus without privacy there is no self.
The new Criminal Procedure Code which allows for phone tapping, and the draft Anti-Terrorism
Law which permits broad intrusive measures dangerously restrict our constitutional
right to personal freedom. These are insidious developments for our fragile society
and people who are already traumatized by the fears instilled by the Khmer Rouge
and who continue to live within a culture of fear.
We must preserve our privacy and thus preserve our ability to think, to be, to act,
to breathe freely.
Legal Intern, UC Berkeley
Theary C. Seng