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.

Sdok Kok Thom & Preah Vihear: In Border Temples, Shared History, Acceptance?

Here is is my VOA interview with John Burgess, a former Washington Post correspondent and author of “Stories in Stone: The Sdok Kok Thom Inscription and the Enigma of Khmer History.” Text below.

The International Court of Justice is expected to rule over the disputed territories between Cambodia and Thailand surrounding the 11th-century Preah Vihear temple on Nov. 11. While the temple has seen tensions and armed conflicts over the years, another ancient Khmer border temple, Sdok Kok Thom, might serve as an example of how both nations can move beyond the conflicts of the past. John Burgess, a former Washington Post correspondent, has authored a book about the temple tilted “Stories in Stone: The Sdok Kok Thom Inscription and the Enigma of Khmer History.” Burgess tells VOA Khmer’s Soeung Sophat that while these border temples have been the cause of conflict, they can also be a source of shared history and mutual acceptance between Thailand and Cambodia.

VOA Director Moderates Panel Discussion on Social Media [Mentioned]

VOA Director David Ensor moderating panel discussion on social media at RIAS event in Washington.

VOA Director David Ensor moderating panel discussion on social media at RIAS event in Washington.

Is social media changing the way journalists do their work and communicate with their audience?

That was the subject of a panel discussion, moderated by VOA Director David Ensor, at an event hosted on October 25th by the Goethe Institut, the RIAS Berlin Commission and German broadcaster Deutsche Welle.

Joining Ensor were two of VOA’s social media mavens: Yulia Savchenko, co-host of the Russian Service show Podelis, and Sophat Soeung, the VOA Khmer Service’s new media coordinator.

“A lot of people still think of us as being just on radio, when in fact we are multimedia, which includes television, and the web and especially social media and mobile platforms,” Ensor said. “As VOA Director, I oversee 45 languages services and I like to say we have 45 different marketing strategies.”

Sociologist Theodore Gerber of the University of Wisconsin–Madison, who has studied the impact of social media on the political landscape in Russia, joined the discussion via Skype.

Earlier in the day, award-winning VOA Persian journalist Arash Sigarchi participated in a separate panel “New Media – New Freedom?” which explored the impact social media is having in the democratic developments of a state.

German Ambassador Peter Ammon speaks to guests from the RIAS Berlin Commission and RIAS Alumni. photo © Germany.info; by Kaveh Sardari

German Ambassador Peter Ammon speaks to guests from the RIAS Berlin Commission and RIAS Alumni. photo © Germany.info; by Kaveh Sardari

Following the two panel discussions, participants took part in a reception at the residence of German Ambassador Peter Ammon.  RIAS chairman Erik Bettermann, IBB Director Dick Lobo, a member of the RIAS Commission Board, and former Ambassador Robert Kimmitt were also spotted mingling with the crowd of German and American journalists.

Since 1992, the RIAS Berlin Commission has been working to increase German-American understanding in the field of broadcasting and has hosted many VOA reporters on its fellowship program.  Panelist Sophat Soeung recently returned from a two-week exchange in Germany.

Original post appeared in the Voice of America’s VOA Buzz.

One Year into Post-Sihanouk Cambodia

A portrait of Norodom Sihanouk is hoisted in front of the Royal Palace as a crowd of about 1,000 people gather ahead of the arrival of the King Father's body in October 2012. (Lauren Crothers/The Cambodia Daily)

A portrait of Norodom Sihanouk is hoisted in front of the Royal Palace as a crowd of about 1,000 people gather ahead of today’s arrival of the King Father’s body in October 2012. (Lauren Crothers/The Cambodia Daily)

October 15 this week marked the first anniversary of the death of Cambodia’s former King Norodom Sihanouk, who died last year in Beijing of heart attack at the age of 89. While the media has focused extensively on the subsequent royal funeral, and to a lesser extent the obituary and the legacy of the former monarch, there has been less focus on the immediate implication of his death to the current political culture of Cambodia. It appears that the death of the revered King less than one year before Cambodia’s general election – and thus the absence of a long-standing unifying figure around a critical political period – has helped created an environment for ‘forced’ political compromise in post-election crisis.

The death of this most influential Cambodian politician might have impacted the population and political parties in pre-election months in the following ways:

  • In the months leading up to the election, the royal funeral and mass mobilization of people to participate in the ceremony had been unseen in the country’s last decade. This mass mobilization both offline and online, followed by unprecedented student protests, help set the stage for a highly active election campaign just months later and particularly ensure the political coming of age of the post-war generation. This boost appeared to have favored the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) more than the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).
  • For the opposition movement, the death also meant the end of any viable royalist contestants in the election, therefore centralizing the role of the Cambodian National Rescue Party as the sole opposition movement.
  • For the Mr. Hun Sen and his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), the death of the revered King meant a short-term opportunity to capitalize on King Sihanouk’s popularity, particularly among young voters. Yet, despite his effort to closely associate himself with the revered monarch – even to the chagrin of some royals – and bridge Sihanouk’s legacy with his own by throwing a lavish royal funeral ceremony, Mr. Hun Sen failed to substantially garner youth votes.

The absence of the revered monarch as a unifying figure in times of political crisis – in the eyes of the ordinary Cambodians and politicians alike – seemed to help ensure a degree of stability before and after the election by restraining all actors’ potential moves. Sihanouk’s son, current King Norodom Sihamoni, has yet to play the imposing role his father did. Furthermore, as Cambodia is coming out of its longest period of peace in decades, unlike in past post-election periods, no political rival wants to be seen as the starter of violence. Thus, despite the opposition protests and growing tensions, there has been relatively low degree of the outright violence seen in past elections and both sides seem eager to start negotiations. While it is premature to view this as a degree of political maturing, the nation is entering rather unfamiliar territory.

The election results – while still disputed by the opposition CNRP – clearly shows the country politically split between the two parties, meaning a much reduced legitimacy for the ruling CPP and Mr. Hun Sen. Mr. Hun Sen’s attempts to build a personal cult based on the larger-than-live persona of King Sihanouk is therefore shaken and the CPP faces its greatest challenge yet to reform ahead of the next elections. On the whole, however, this means that Cambodia is entering a new era where political legitimacy is changing in the eyes of a changing populace, with decreasing focus on charisma or personality and more on party policies and delivery. In this new status quo, the ruling CPP and opposition CNRP parties alike will have to work harder on policy specifics to meet the rising expectations of the electorate ahead of the 2018 elections.

On the inauguration of the statue of the former King, there is again dispute over access to the royal ceremony – thus traditional legitimacy. Only time will tell if history will look back at the death of former King Sihanouk as the end of an era in Cambodia’s political history or merely a minor point in the era of Mr. Hun Sen.

A nice piece by the Phnom Penh Post on how the former King is remembered one year on.

Der Berliner in Berlin

Me at Berlin's Brandenburg Gate On Day Zero of the RIAS Fellowship.

Me at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate On Day Zero of the RIAS Fellowship.

I’m back in Berlin. But this time I am on a professional capacity to attend the RIAS Berlin Commission fellowship, a two-week German-American journalism exchange program. I feel very privileged to be among 14 US journalists attending this exciting fall program to broaden my understanding of Berlin, Germany, and the European Union, as well as learning from American colleagues. And I hope to better tell the “story” of Berlin, a city I consider special. Although Internet access will be spotty, I will try my best to blog as much as possible. I’m also initiating Twitter updates at #RIASBerlin13. Stay tuned to my upcoming musings and pictures from this dream journey!