Happy 2014!

It’s 2014! Happy New Year from the City That Never Sleeps.

Firework at New York harbor as seen from Brooklyn bridge, shortly after new year on January 1, 2014. (Sophat Soeung)

New year firework at New York city harbor and Financial District as seen from Brooklyn bridge, shortly after new year on January 1, 2014. (Sophat Soeung)

And as a news-junkie, what a place to start the new year – the news never sleeps either! Just look at what happened in Cambodia on Day 2. Beyond Cambodia, it’s going to be an interesting year for ASEAN, with Myanmar chairing the regional grouping for the first time. Even in tech, 2014 does not look any less buzz-rich than last year with the expected and some unexpected trends.

After an eventful 2013, this new year promises to be an even more newsy year for Cambodia, Southeast Asia, and digital media. I will be trying to update this blog more often. So stay tuned!

When the Wall Came Down: Reflections on the RIAS Berlin Fellowship

By Sophat Soeung, Voice of America, Washington, D.C. for RIAS Berlin (Fall 2013 Photos)

RIAS Fall 2013 fellows in front of the Reichstag building, which houses the German lower house of parliament. (Courtesy of RIAS Berlin)

RIAS Fall 2013 fellows in front of the Reichstag building, which houses the German lower house of parliament. (Courtesy of RIAS Berlin)

When the Fernsehturm appeared imposingly in the distant fall sky during our descend into Berlin’s Tegel Airport, I immediately knew that the RIAS Fellowship would be unlike any of my previous trips to the German capital. Last time I had seen Berlin from above like this was as a child nearly twenty years ago, when my family flew out of Tegel, permanently leaving a city I once called home.

I, thus, came to RIAS ‘prepared’ to learn more about — first and foremost — the Berlin I didn’t know, but also about Germany and Europe. RIAS even exceeded the “dream Fellowship” I had in mind. In two weeks, I have gained invaluable knowledge and professional connections, passed through more diverse cities, eaten more new dishes, and talked to more strangers on the streets than any two weeks before.

There are countless highlights of the program, but as a former Berliner, I could not escape “Nach der Wende” or “When the Wall came down.” It had been a constant narrative throughout the RIAS program, from our first session in Berlin to our last session at NATO in Brussels.

The ‘Wall narrative’ was prevalent in Berlin. Nearly 24 years after its iconic Wall came down, the city’s East-West “mental gap” still existed in people who had lived through the divide, but fading with the younger generation. According to Mr. Thomas Habicht this mental divide manifested itself in media preference and voting pattern. The September elections were indeed a clear indication. And to my surprise, two 18-year-old Germans in the eastern Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood told me they voted for the leftist party, suggesting a continuing undercurrent even amongst the young.

Thanks to RIAS’ appointments with prominent politicians, business leaders, and media professionals, in the nearly two weeks, I lived and learned Berlin like never before. Be it a currywurst at Curry36; the Spree boat tour through the ‘Berlin Mall’; a walk with a Turkish-German politician in Wedding; interviewing a Berlin official near the former city hall where President Kennedy delivered his famed “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech; touring RTL television station; or going to an opera; each moment captured a different aspect of the dynamism that is today’s Berlin.

But as a former “East Berliner”, not all new revelations were pleasant. At the former Stasi prison, I learned for the first time that the East German secret police most likely had a file on my family. Almost everyone I talked to was shocked at my mentioning of “Marzahn” as the district I once grew up. The once communist-inspried “City of the Future,” Marzahn is now known throughout Germany as the “Berlin ghetto” of xenophobia. Admittedly, my growing up there as a foreigner was not pleasant. But on this trip, I did find the healing answers to the many things I could not comprehend as a child.

Gentrification was happening in Berlin on a vast scale — even grander than that of Washington D.C. — and cranes were everywhere. They were bringing down old walls while also erecting new ones. But rather unique to Berlin, development is happening on top of many layers of history. At the East Side Gallery, we had a close-up of this conflict over one of the last stretches of the Berlin Wall. I couldn’t help thinking that ironically Berlin’s new battle was to keep the Wall standing — the city’s long-term dilemma between development and preservation.

I was surprised to learn that history of division had literally ‘robbed’ Berlin of its economic significance and prevented the capital of Europe’s largest economy from becoming the metropolis that are London and Paris. Yet, history also made it the only Western capital allowed to start anew. Even as Germany’s poorest state, it seemed every road for the young led to Berlin. The influx of new people drives the city’s tech industry and makes it feel one city again. Perhaps most symbolic, I left Berlin on the German Unity Day, satisfied with my greater understanding of the former divided city.

But walls also existed beyond Berlin. This was the first time I learned about the invisible divide between Germany’s former East and West. Most striking, the legacy of that divide is not only felt politically and economically, but even views of history differ. At the Buchenwald concentration camp near Weimar, I learned that in the former East Germany, the history of the Nazis was not dealt with adequately because the former communist regime saw itself also a victim of Hitler. Its correlation with xenophobia proved a revelation to me. Furthermore, unlike America, Germany has yet to think of itself as a nation of immigrants; nevertheless, the country has come a long way in accepting its difficult history. As Buchenwald press director Dr. Philipp Neumann-Thein summed up for me, “I am not proud to be German on the history but I am proud to be German on how we dealt with history.”

RIAS Fall 2013 fellows at the European Union building in Brussels. (Courtesy of RIAS Berlin)

RIAS Fall 2013 fellows at the European Union building in Brussels. (Courtesy of RIAS Berlin)

That history also constituted the walls  that existed elsewhere in Europe. While “When the Wall came down” marks the end of the Cold War, it also marks the beginning a reunified Germany that is now once again leading Europe, perhaps at the discomfort of both its neighbors and itself. For the first time, the German elections have become a topic in neighboring countries, we were told. We also learned it is the only developed country to emerged better economically after the financial crisis. Given its current political and economic cloud in the EU, while cognizant of its history, the message of German pacifism at the defense office should not have come as an irony.

Of course, and there were the German elections, the third I had witnessed in less than a year after the U.S. and Cambodian elections. Every previous RIAS group seemed to claim their program as the best or most fortuitous. But I think the German elections, the NSA drama, and the Syrian crisis — to point a few — did make ours truly the most fortuitous. Who else could claim to have seen Angela Merkel land in a helicopter at the Chancellery and walking passed us into her office — just three days before the election? Or given a results analysis the very next morning by her party officials? Oh, yes, and that poster, “Cool bleiben und Kanzlerin wählen!”

Merkel’s “grand” victory seemed to only further symbolise Germany’s confident standing in Europe and the world. That confidence in one’s political, economic, and media institutions, is increasingly shaken in the US. This is especially true as I arrive back in Washington, DC during the government shutdown. RIAS Fellows had been sharing their wish that the U.S. would learn from the German compromise.

And even nearly one month after RIAS, the experience is strong. Der Spiegel has found its way into my daily morning read, and all eyes are now on the NSA spying revelations that is starting to erect new ‘walls’ in US-German relations. Here at VOA, I immediately applied my knowledge from RIAS to explain Germany to my colleagues. On a lighter note, I was honored to be panelist at a RIAS-Deutsche Welle reunion at the Goethe Institute in Washington. And better yet, my biggest ‘RIAS’ moment back in America came when, for the first time, my dateline was “Berlin”!

RIAS has been a truly life-changing experience for me, both professionally and personally. It has tremendously increased my understanding of Germany’s political, economic, social, and media systems as well as its relations with Europe and the United States. Just looking at what I have written surprises me as to how much more confident I am in discussing Germany and Europe. I am grateful.

As an American journalist, I came with my own walls of misunderstandings, misconceptions, or pure ignorance of the Germany beyond Marzahn. The Berlin Wall came down on November 09, 1989. My “Berlin Wall” came down during the RIAS Fellowship, nearly 24 years later.

Note: This is a repost of my report for RIAS Berlin Fellowship Fall 2013. You can apply for the 2014 program here. Learn more about my Berlin connection here.

On 51st ICJ Anniversary, Preah Vihear Less Politically Divisive

Preah Vihear temple in December 2012. (Sophat Soeung)

Preah Vihear temple in December 2012. (Sophat Soeung)

WASHINGTON – On the 51st anniversary of the ICJ’s ruling of June 15, 1962, I ask where is the Preah Vihear temple dispute today?

The ancient Hindu-Khmer* temple of Preah Vihear is once again ‘on trial’ at the International Court of Justice earlier this year. Exactly two month before the 51st anniversary of its 1962 ruling, the court held another hearing right around Khmer/Thai new year on the request for reinterpretation of that ruling. The request was made by Cambodia, following a series of border conflicts with Thailand between 2008 and 2011 subsequent to the enlisting of Preah Vihear temple as world heritage site.

The court is expected to make a landmark ruling in October. The big question is what the ruling will be. But an even bigger question is how the two countries – especially Thailand and the Thai military – will react to the ruling.

The good news is that – at least on the Cambodian side – local politics appear to be out of the picture, at least until the October ruling. Although some domestic dynamics in both countries are similar to the period leading up to Cambodia’s 2008 national elections, the differences are significant, especially the current Thai government’s much more favorable attitude towards Cambodia and Mr. Hun Sen. This has especially manifested itself in Thailand’s recent denial of entry to opposition leader Sam Rainsy.

Even though the ICJ hearing occured just over three months before Cambodia’s national elections on July 28 and the pending case extending over into the post-election period, the hearing and 51st anniversary has officially been kept low, perhaps also out of the need to show impartiality during the high-profile World Heritage Committee gathering starting tomorrow.

A final factor is that unlike in 2008, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party has by now established itself as a legitimate protector of the country’s sovereignty, a legitimacy it has lacked and some still see as lacking. And according to analyst Chheang Vannarith, the disappearance of Preah Vihear in election politics is also due to Cambodia’s general confidence after the ICJ’s April hearing on a generally unifying issue for Cambodians. Here’s my Skype interview with him, in Khmer.

Back in the last election in 2008, the Preah Vihear dispute eventually became somewhat intertwined with pre-election politics in Cambodia and helped set a string of events that eventually let to Thai-Cambodia border skirmishes. This was how I viewed the situation back in November 2009, after the first round of border clashes between the two countries. In hindsight, however, the Preah Vihear dispute then was ironically also the most unifying issues in country in decades. It unified Cambodians across political lines both inside and outside the country.

Preah Vihear concert in 2008: A rare large-scale re-introduction of formerly banned nationalistic song “Pongsavadar Khmer” or “Khmer Chronicle”, something previously unthought of by the CPP.

The bad news, however, according to the same observer, is that there is no foreseeable ‘good’ or ‘win-win’ scenarios yet following the ICJ ruling in October, making things less predictable.

Since Preah Vihear is likely not a factor this year’s Cambodian politics, where attention has shifted east, the likely scenario in the run-up to the ruling remains one of calm like since current Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra came to power. Until the ICJ ruling, and thereafter, it seems the key player and determinant in the dispute will be the Thai military.

*I use the term “Hindu-Khmer” temple rather than “Hindu temple” or “Khmer temple” to more accurately describe the nature of the ancient temples build by the Khmer Empire. It appears that the term “Hindu temple” is mostly used in Thailand to maximize the religious nature of it and ignoring the Khmer identity of the temple. In Cambodia, the temples -including Angkor Wat – are simply known as “Khmer temple” to refer to its cultural heritage, where Hinduism is already understood as a part of Khmer identity.

Note: An earlier version of this article wrongly suggests that this year was the 50th anniversary rather than 51st anniversary.

10 Cambodia Topics to Watch in 2013

KNY13 Wat Brooklyn Sophatography (1 of 1)

Happy Cambodian new year 2013, year of the Snake!

Here are ten broad developments in 2013 that I think Cambodia observers should watch out for. They are not necessarily in order of priority. I will be revisiting these topics separately in the coming weeks and months.

  1. Cambodia national elections (July 28)
  2. Preah Vihear border dispute and nationalism
  3. Khmer Rouge tribunal ‘crisis’
  4. Cambodia’s growing land conflicts
  5. Hydropower and Mekong river dilemma
  6. Human rights problems and the Myanmar effect
  7. Corruption and attempts at governance reform
  8. Cambodia, China, and Asean ‘triangular’ relations
  9. Rise of digital media, youth voices, and social development
  10. Uneven economic growth and regional competitiveness

Major events in the ‘2012 Cambodian year’ that will likely have an impact on 2013 developments:

  • Death of King Norodom Sihanouk, Cambodia’s ‘father’ for decades
  • Death of Ieng Sary, former Khmer Rouge foreign minister
  • Cambodian performance as chair of Asean in 2012 and the South China Sea disagreement
  • Shrinking press freedom in traditional media space
  • Opening up and early democratization of Myanmar (Burma)
  • US President Barack Obama visit to Phnom Penh

*I may be updating some of topic as necessary.*