Reporting from: Phnom Penh, Cambodia
It was a lazy weekend.
I admit that – outside of meetings with investors here – I’ve been hunched over my MacBook practically 24/7 the last few weeks as we launch new products and promote our Passport to Freedom event in January. Yesterday was not much of an exception.
After working until the wee hours of the morning on Friday night, I woke up around noon on Saturday, had a large Nepalese lunch in my neighborhood here in Phnom Penh, and headed for a new cafe in the center of town.
For $3.35, the iced white chocolate could be a little more white chocolate and a little less ice. But such is the price of consuming international-quality products in the developing world.
But little did I realize until after it had already happened that 20,000 people had demonstrated against last month’s election results, which they dispute.
Saturday’s demonstration in Phnom Penh’s Democracy Park is one of the largest such demonstrations in the entire region as of late. Both the Cambodian People’s Party and the opposition leaders claim widespread voter fraud went on in the recent elections, and the opposition is not above boycotting Parliament to keep the existing government from carrying on.
Yet many expats here didn’t even know it was happening.
Large public demonstrations in Cambodia are contained to so-called “freedom parks” where groups can easily get permits and speak out on issues of the day. Not exactly perfect freedom of speech, but a step in the right direction.
What’s interesting to me is just how many places in the world have demonstrations like these that send the western media into a frenzied tizzy as they rush to report just how chaotic things are “over there”.
When I was in Turkey last year, friends and even some colleagues asked “Why?” There was a skirmish, to say the least, with the Syrian government along Turkey’s eastern border, but nothing in far-away Istanbul or touristy Cappadocia.
Yet few westerners take that sort of thing into account. They just see “Turkey” flash across the bottom of their television screen and assume every inch of the country must be a war zone in the midst of burning to the ground.
It reminds me of an episode of “The Big Bang Theory” where one of the main characters’ Indian parents alarmedly call their daughter in Los Angeles only to ask, “We heard there was a tornado in Kansas. Is that close to you?!”
As I’ve pointed out about overly aggressive travel warnings, the western media almost always over-hypes issues going on in the rest of the world in their quest for ratings.
It turns out, they’re almost always wrong. While no doubt there’s some report being filed about how a bunch of hooligans overran Phnom Penh with the mischief, I and everyone else in the city spend our Saturday completely oblivious to what was going on just a mile or two away.
That’s how it usually plays out. It’s all too convenient for western media and governments to convince you that all hell is breaking loose anytime some other part of the world has a political demonstration.
I was in Paris when Francoise Hollande – a guy who campaigned on a soul-crushing 75% top income tax bracket – beat Nicholas Sarkozy, and I made the mistake of being in a cafe near the opera house as political demonstrators started filling the streets. By the time I left, I could barely move an inch in any direction.
Yet I didn’t see any western media proclaiming France to be a war zone the way they do when Turks or Khmers or anyone else in the emerging world takes to the street to voice a political opinion.
Nor did anyone think a bunch of Occupy Wall Streeters pooping on police cars was a legitimate reason for tourists not to visit New York City.
I often share the opinion that fear of the unknown is what keeps people rooted in patriotism and away from greener pastures elsewhere. It’s a lot easier to perjoratively declare that Turkey is a Muslim country full of violence than to actually check what’s really going on.
Doing so often reveals places that are on the rise, as I believe Turkey is.
This is the same process I use to evaluate places I travel to. I really do believe you can visit North Korea or Iran and be completely safe 99 times out of one hundred.
People involving themselves in their country’s political process is a sign of progress and a trend that countries like the United States have gone through time and time again as they supposedly built they way into the best place on earth. The idea that some country most westerners haven’t been to and likely don’t understand is bad for following the same trajectory is ridiculous.
As long as this fear of the unknown continues, millions of entrepreneurs and other talents will stay put right where they’re are, convinced the rest of the world is ready to blow at any minute.
They’ll unwittingly follow the media’s lead and ignore problems in their own country (do you think there’s no voter fraud in The Land of the Free?). And they’ll ignore perfectly good expatriation opportunities because they don’t look beyond the fear.
I believe this fear is inside of each of us and is stoked by those who benefit from doing so. It’s up to each of us not to think with our emotions or interpret so-called problems outside of our home country with a broad brush.
Every country has growing pains, just like our own home countries did and still do. To believe that the soup we’re sitting in is better simply because we’re surrounded by it has proven to be a deadly – and costly – move throughout history.