Is it colonialism?

Recently, the Cambodian National Assembly decided to expel 27 opposition members, which means not allowing them to participate in their duties, including debating and voting on new laws, and it also means denying these members their salaries. (article link)

The U.S. State Department responded to this action issuing a statement on June 8, 2013:

The United States is deeply concerned by reports that the Permanent Committee of the Cambodian National Assembly, made up entirely of members of the ruling party, has expelled opposition lawmakers from the National Assembly. Such a decision starkly contradicts the spirit of a healthy democratic process. 

We strongly support a political process that includes the full participation of all political parties on a level playing field. Stripping the salaries and parliamentary status of opposition party legislators deprives the Cambodian people of their voice and hurts the democratic process in Cambodia. Full participation of all elected representatives is essential to the democratic process.

We urge the National Assembly leadership to allow all elected members to fulfill their commitment to serve the Cambodian people.

As reported by The Cambodia Daily (article), a Cambodian lawmaker said in response to the U.S. statement: “Please rethink this. I don’t want them [the U.S. State Department] to have colonial ideas anymore, telling other countries to do things.” (my emphasis)

A follow-up article expands on this: “CPP-led Assembly Tells U.S. to Stop Meddling”

While I’m admittedly not an expert in international politics, I want to explore what I think is an important question:  Is this a “colonial” move by the U.S.?  My first reaction is:  Not in the slightest.  I was under the impression that having opinions and issuing statements about other countries’ actions is part of participating in the international community.

Colonialism generally refers to an actual administrative power in the governing of another country.  Hence, the French Protectorate would be a time of colonialism.  The Vietnamese occupation as well.  Neocolonialism is generally understand as the transition from the direct control by another country to establishment (or maintenance) of elites that hold favor with a country which is able to, through these people, control the country, continuing an exploitative relationship with its people.  Imperialism, probably the most relevant in the relationship between the U.S. and Cambodia, is the ability for a strong (usually economically strong) power to control another country through economic dependence which includes cultural imperialism.  This would include teaching or somehow spreading ideas that keep one country in power, internationally speaking.  Hence, selling the logic of neoliberal capitalism might be most beneficial for the U.S. or most beneficial for various transnational corporations and the executives of those.  Other values which benefit one country over others might also be considered imperialism.  For instance, valuing secularism over religion can politically mean vilifying religious (in the current rhetoric usually Islamic) violence and more importantly justifying secular violence (against the religious violence, for instance).  This, by the way, is the main thesis of Cavanaugh’s book The Myth of Religious Violence.

But let’s do a very quick and rudimentary analysis.  Is the U.S. State Department’s action colonial?  Since the U.S. is not directly in control of Cambodian government, perhaps we can ask a related question: Is it paternalistic?

To command a change in policy or else (for instance, the “or else” might be implementing economic sanctions or using military force or instituting some other form of “punishment”) seems more paternalistic and depending on what we mean by “colonial” seems to be easier to argue for.  Or for the U.S. to ignore what U.S. thinks is an unjust situation because the country is undeveloped and is unworthy of attention seems also to be paternalistic, politically ignoring the country (and perhaps working in covert ways) would also be on the scale of colonial to imperialistic.  But to issue a statement using the values a country (the U.S.) claims to hold (whether this is internally consistent is a whole different, more dubious question) and make a statement regarding others’ unjust actions seems to me to be the opposite of colonial.  Is making such a statement even imperialistic?  This would take a lot more analysis of what democracy means (which is an important exercise).  But on the surface, it seems difficult to argue it’s imperialistic.

This sort of statement necessarily made from the ethical framework of one country (here, the U.S.), which seems to encourage dialogue, an attempt to hold another (here, Cambodia) accountable to its own purported values (in this case, democracy), seems to be treating another as, well, more of an equal.  It doesn’t appear to be coercion, or indoctrination, or a way to reinforce exploitation which seem to be important in imperialism.

In the article Mr. Vun says, “We took an oath to protect democracy, and they [the U.S.] tell Cambodia to do this and do that. We cannot accept it. If we tell [the U.S. Congress] what to do, will they do it? If not, don’t tell our National Assembly what to do.”  I don’t know if this is a language issue, but it seems to me that it would be appropriate for other countries to call out the U.S. in double-talk or unjust practices.  I would hope that Cambodia would make statements about injustices that it sees in the U.S. policy, for instance toward Cambodia, or even unjust practices toward its own (American) people.  In fact, also in the article, Mr. Vun does call out the U.S. for its role in the 1970 coup d’etat which seems to be a normal (not colonial) thing to do.

So, philosophically, I think that such a statement by the U.S. State Department whether I agree with it or not, does not seem to be “colonial.”  I must admit that underneath such statements there may be a lot of other things going on.  Perhaps those practices are more “colonial.”  And perhaps my hope that other countries would call out the U.S. is unrealistic because of the actual imperialistic power that it holds.  If so, this, then, is a problem.

But as for the U.S. State Department’s statement, I so no colonialism.  What do you see?

Rural Farmland or Urban Slums?

“Since 1980, the proportion of the developing world living in urban areas has grown to about 50 percent, from 30 percent, and according to the World Bank, that migration of hundreds of millions has been instrumental in pulling down poverty rates — and will be for a broader set of countries going forward.”

NY Times Article “Is It Crazy to Think We Can Eradicate Poverty?”

This article is interesting for so many reasons.  After my first visit to Cambodia, I was clearly in the minority in a class on Eco-theology because I actually wanted to argue for the benefit of cities and at the same time was wary of over-romanticization of remote and rural living (especially in the developing world).  But looking at this now from Cambodia, I decided to focus on how we might think about the issues in this particular context.

First, I asked a friend, a Filipino who works on development with a Christian organization, who’s been in Cambodia for years what he thought about this argument.  When I asked, in his experience, is quality of life better in poor rural Cambodia or in the slums here, he responded first by claiming not to have any sort of objective answer.  He thought that in the villages life is better.  This largely spawns from his insistence in relationality being the key to quality of life.  But, in the course of our conversation, he wanted to grant that there is some benefit to living in the city (slums) as the article suggested.  Perhaps when people come here (to Phnom Penh), although it’s not necessarily their intention, they are exposed to more, able to access services, and realize their own potential.  But because spirituality and relationality were so important to him, the amount of money you make and access was not necessarily the best indicator of good quality of life.

Second, Heinrich Böll Foundation (HBF) from Cambodia just sent a contingent to this very World Bank conference on eradication of poverty in Washington D.C.  They were mostly trying to highlight the detriment of Cambodia’s land titling process on the indigenous communities here subsequent the moratorium on Economic Land Concessions.  This Economic Land Concessions program allows the government to lease up to 10,000 hectares of state land for up to 99 years to private companies for industrial agriculture.  The detriment to the poor has been documented in various reports, including the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee report on the important of Large-Scale Investments in Farmland.  This includes effects of policies that subsidize one product, like the E.U.’s duty free access to Cambodian sugar, which has had deleterious effects as foreign investors or “big people” have bought up large amounts of land to set up plantations, leaving the rural poor with less access to natural resources and food security.  (The particular paper HBF presented is about the difficulties indigenous communities face, especially when in close proximity to Economic Land Concessions, for obtaining collective titles even when these economic land concessions have been halted and private titling expedited.)  At least one HBF staffer thinks that ensuring people have their own land, changing the focus to supporting small farms, is the most logical next step for Cambodia and will have the greatest positive impact.

While this article about poverty eradication and the goal of eradicating poverty can be (and should be) interrogated in various ways, the article also brings up interesting questions.  How do we measure quality of life?  What are the effects of international and national policies on people in the developing world?  Why are individuals in the developing world increasingly moving to the (mega-)city slums and how it it benefit (or harm) them?

Valuing hierarchy, valuing autonomy

Can a person value hierarchy and autonomy simultaneously or are these concepts at odds?

As many of you know, in this research in Cambodia, I aim to try to understand concepts and their relationship to women’s empowerment, empirically, through conversations and observations.  Are underlying values of autonomy, individualism, freedom, equality–what I’m calling liberal values–necessary for women’s empowerment?

As any amount of time in Cambodia shows and many other Cambodia scholars have attested to: hierarchy is important in Cambodia. (This is clear from Chandler’s famous essay, “Songs at the edge of the forest” and reaffirmed by many others.)

I have presented on the possibility of having a feminist ethics that values hierarchy (SEASSI student conference in 2009) and now, reflecting on my fieldwork observations, I’m wrestling with hierarchy again.

More recently, I have been pondering the larger question of whether there exists a type of empowerment that is not based on liberal values or a liberationist framework.

How do we approach the question, “Can a person value hierarchy and autonomy simultaneously or are these concepts at odds?”

As one friend has implied, these concepts are at best vague outside of a context.

Granted, I’m thinking about a Cambodian context.  Autonomy is, at first thought, acting in one’s self interest (not considering others‘ interest or limitations imposed by others).  This feels a lot like the way “rights” is understood around here as in “I have the right to marry who I want even if my parents don’t approve.”

Similarly, my first thought on hierarchy is that it is a respect for the limitations imposed by those higher up rather than solely following one’s self interest.  Or, perhaps it’s more helpful to think about attention to a system, a group, institution, family of which you are a part, rather than your individual desire.  Surely, doing what your parents say might be in your self interest.  But choosing to “follow your own heart” instead of the wishes of your parents might be–for me–valuing autonomy over hierarchy.

In some cultural contexts, it would be unheard of (or at least generally disapproved of) for the parents to refuse to let their daughter marry who she wanted.  Maybe this is not a denial of hierarchy but a redefinition of which aspects of life should be subjected to it.  (This makes this concept of rights seem a little culturally contrived.)

Thinking on a broader level, even institutions which depend on liberal presuppositions or profess liberal values need hierarchy.  It’s not bad to make some decisions on your own and defer to the higher ups for others, right?  While people have tried, it’s proven laborious if not impossible to conceive of another way of running a system like an institution.

Is strictly following the procedures and checking with superiors about some decisions beforehand valuing hierarchy over autonomy?

Another friend suggested my question itself makes a categorical mistake.  He suggested we think of four cases, systems with autonomy and hierarchy, or just one, or neither.  Because he could think of examples of each, he concluded they are independent concepts.

I still think there’s something there.  There’s something about limiting the autonomy of the individual or conditioning one to think first of the whole and only second of the individual self that goes against liberal values, like the idea of the liberation of the individual.

Feminism with which I’m most familiar is steeped in these liberal values.  Many activist organizations want to empower women (to seemingly follow their self interest or exercise their rights).  Is there another type of empowerment possible that values hierarchy over autonomy?  Is the question merely a false dichotomy or does it provide a helpful lens for thinking of which values are necessary for women’s empowerment?