Trafficking Human Rights: Promoting “Prerequisite” Rights in Southeast Asia

By Ryan Paine
Birds on collage backgraound

By Ryan Paine.

Please use your liberty to promote ours. – Aung San Suu Kyi

In the year or so I’ve been living and working in Southeast Asia, there have been two moments when I genuinely yearned to be home: when I smelt a glass of shiraz from South Australia; and when I was stuck on the Aranyaprathet/Poipet border, entering Cambodia from Thailand, feeling like a piece of human traffic a few days before Khmer New Years.

My dad’s a real wine wanker and has taught me enough to know a year on nothing but chilled Mont Clair is approaching something like dire straits. So apart from my hometown’s good cheap wine, I found myself yearning for the rigid administrative structure of the Australian public service when, at an “official” visa office, the process of getting across the border became a comedy of scams. It started with some jerk making off with my thongs while I was in the office deciding to not check “journalist” as my occupation.

“Journalist” is the only option to choose, apart from “other”, which says a lot about the sort of people the official Cambodia wants to monitor in the country. I’m here as an Asialink Writer-in-Residence with Nou Hach Literary Association. I was travelling with a fixie in a box and a DSLR, which tells you about the sort of “journalist” I am – a soft-left middle-class one, if the irony wasn’t clear.

It was gutting to see the institutional backend of the human-trafficking machine, and eye-opening to see that my plight was nothing compared to the daily struggle of forced workers all over the world.

After I paid four times too much for a dubious visa, we were piled into the back of two song tows (utes with two lengthwise seats in the tray) and made to wait while the lone driver got the others to the border. The other choice was to brave the application process at the border and risk missing the connecting bus to Siem Reap. I was sheepish about my bike, which I had to jam between people’s legs like a jerk.

In the song tow there were two Canadians, a French guy, two American couples, and a couple of miscellaneous European heritage. I mentioned Woomera to lighten up the situation, and was dismayed that no one aboard had any idea about the place. I did my best to explain about one of the world’s most heinous refugee detention centres by calling it “Australia’s Guantanamo Bay”, and my point was understood – we should stop complaining, because this was nothing.

At the border we were lectured about the cost variances to expect, and asked to divulge the variety of prices we paid for our bus fares. They seemed to be priming us to accept costs from left field, surprise fees. The scams were beginning to seem remarkably well organised.

And then we waited again, on the street for some unknown reason, until one of the American couples got angry. That was enough to immediately dislodge whatever was causing the delay. It crossed our minds they were trying to wear us down to make us more malleable, more scammable. The indignity of being made to wait on the street at high noon because you look like a wallet is considerable.

Determined that no more bastards exploit me at the border, I rejected one crack from the “visa office” cronies (a customs-fee scam), but couldn’t see my way around paying “customs” to the Thai tourist police. I then paid no customs at the actual border, but repaid for the second leg of a connecting bus fare I bought in Bangkok.

Relatively speaking, my experience wasn’t so bad, but having your vulnerability, ignorance and nationality exploited for individual benefit is kind of a big deal. I learnt later that scams escalate around Khmer New Year so locals can return home with gifts and booze. This helped me sympathise, sort of.

Who said we abolished slavery?

And then I saw two Thai immigration trucks passing through full of Khmer deportees. A truck full of pigs passed also, stacked on top of each other but seeming more comfortable than the people standing up in the truck, fanning their babies in conditions tighter and sweatier than a My Chemical Romance mosh pit.

It was gutting to see the institutional backend of the human-trafficking machine, and eye-opening to see that my plight was nothing compared to the daily struggle of forced workers all over the world. I felt like a jerk again, complaining about a few opportunistic border hustlers giving me grief as I travel through Southeast Asia enjoying the freedoms, luxuries and protections of being a middle-class intellectual on excursion from Australia.

There I was, whingeing on the border about an over-priced visa with a fixie and a DSLR to worry about while underpaid Cambodian seafood workers were having their passports confiscated by their employers to retain them in a Thai company.

Later the workers would be glad to just have their freedom assured by having their passports returned, though travelling home remains prohibitively expensive for many. And this is just one small case of labour exploitation among an estimated 30 million slave workers worldwide. Who said we abolished slavery?

These examples illustrate vastly different systems of values about the same revered human right to freedom, and my case on the Poipet border forced me to wonder how these differences could develop, and how far they stretched across cultures.

What I didn’t expect to find was how deep this culture of exploitation runs among the people, not just the government, a few ruthless traffickers and their elite supporters. The border clowns were dressed in civvies, and I still don’t know if they were dishevelled public servants or opportunistic tuk-tuk drivers. Private and public service uniforms are not common here, except in the forces, and then there is a confusing myriad, so it’s hard to know who’s who, and who to trust.

…it’s not about the money, it’s a matter of principle: it feels awful to be exploited, to be disrespected or feel threatened because you’re considered wealthy or simply for being a foreigner.

Having to assert your right to not be taken advantage of at every step of the way goes directly against an important aspect of Western character I’m used to: I treat people with respect, honesty and dignity, and I expect the same from others. I expect to pay the agreed market price for everything regardless of race, creed or colour, because I was raised in a society where markets are usually regulated and monitored to ensure those in market power do not exploit those in a weaker market position.

Somehow, here, the poor exploit the wealthy, like some bad impersonation of Robin Hood.

Surely everyone has the right to be free from exploitation, regardless of wealth – fancy that, wealth discrimination. Can you spell “first-world problems”? But it’s not about the money, it’s a matter of principle: it feels awful to be exploited, to be disrespected or feel threatened because you’re considered wealthy or simply for being a foreigner.

Knowing that in some small part you are implicated in official corruption simply by being here is a constant source of something like shame.

The street hustlers I’ve encountered and heard about here have come in all variety of forms, from shared expectations embedded deep in a society where individual equality is less valued. With the recent rapid injection of free-market principles, individual rights now inflate and deflate more than ever with individual wealth. The poorest are left to fend for themselves, forcing a sort of indiscriminate opportunism to develop: the informal Khmer-language teacher who hit me up for a two-hundred dollar loan after the second lesson and then failed to turn up for subsequent lessons after I bemusedly refused; the girls you meet at bars who are not exactly working bar girls, but who will extort men for all the drinks and breakfasts they can; the laymen who run up massive karma debts by donning the robes and begging (a practice prohibited by the first five and most basic precepts of Buddhism); the taxi drivers who stop halfway between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, in the middle of nowhere, and don’t move until you agree to double the fare.

Knowing that in some small part you are implicated in official corruption simply by being here is a constant source of something like shame. After paying another “phantom fine” for riding straight once, my friend said, “Maybe this is how it feels to be black.” He meant that maybe this is how it feels to be exploited because of your skin colour. It eats away at your sense of self-worth as hustler after hustler stares through your humanity to your wallet.

Still, none of this compares to serious exploitation, so why should I feel so aggrieved? Based on the way I’ve seen locals accept their lot, I’m sure many of the slave population would bare up with more grace under the conditions they suffer, and getting stuck on a border with their own actual visa would be considered a relatively luxurious kind of freedom. Our upbringing and values dictate our concerns: I worried about losing some money and dignity; others worry about losing their lives if they escape their debt bondage and pimps.

Many of the prerequisite rights we hold so dear are yet dreams and hopes for many of the world’s people, and must be achieved before the higher human-rights ideals are even clocked on the radar.

Westerners are wired differently, and the passivity among Easterners I’ve got to know has a lot to do with the way they are wired, obviously. But the more I thought and read about it, the more I realised something I think is important in understanding how to pursue human rights internationally. Basically, Westerners need to pull their heads in, and Easterners need to buck up. Many of the prerequisite rights we hold so dear are yet dreams and hopes for many of the world’s people, and must be achieved before the higher human-rights ideals are even clocked on the radar.

In between reading and learning about this I saw The Lady, about Burma’s pro-democracy hero, Aung San Suu Kyi, and started scribbling my way through a book called The Geography of Thought, by Richard Nisbett.

According to Nisbett, since Confucius and Aristotle, Easterners have been living among a culture of collective agency, while Westerners enjoy and pursue individual agency.

Individual rights in China were one’s “share” of the rights of the community as a whole, not a license to do as one pleased.

While

Only the Greeks [felt] free enough, being confident enough in their ability to control their own lives.

These values persist today, and the first place I see it is in our attitudes to family: young Cambodians support their families where old Westerners are supporting their young into later and later age. Close extended families are an anomaly in the West, where in the East they are the norm.

Nisbett goes on to explain how geography, ecology and religion influence the development of distinctly different sets of values, rights and even conceptions of the self. Where the Greeks defined “happiness” as “being able to exercise their powers in pursuit of excellence in a life free from constraints”, Chinese philosophy lacked not only “a conception of individual rights” but even “an acknowledgement of individual minds”. To the Chinese, “not liberty but harmony was the watchword”.

And this all hit home at the end of The Lady, where Kyi was quoted: “Please use your liberty to promote ours.”

These distinctions, which are still prevalent today, go a long way to illuminating a problem we have to address in the pursuit for global equality of human rights, and Kyi nailed it. Certain values, such as individual agency, which are still absent in much Eastern culture, are the basis for certain “prerequisite” rights that need to be established before more ambitious rights can be achieved.

Freedom of thought predicates freedom of expression, as freedom of access to clean drinking water and freedom to life predicate both. Freedom of expression and assembly are severely restricted in Cambodia as much by government intervention as by self-censorship.

In the West, we preach something that must be protected and promoted around the world: the freedom of thought and the flourishing freedom of expression that cannot be achieved without it. (We’re not the best at achieving this ourselves, but we at least know how to talk about it.) If we’re going to colonise parts of the East in a half-arsed way we can’t expect to visit here and find fair, well-functioning societies.

If we’re going to get involved with third-world countries and “fix” things we need to think about where we start, and, unsurprisingly, dropping free markets without the associated protective freedoms and scarpering back to the West is not the best way to continue.

Some human rights may be relative, but others should be irreducible, flourishing from a shared understanding of important values that cannot be denied in any society. Of course it’s trickier than that: irreducible, predetermined understanding of the value of certain human rights is not necessarily a good aspiration: where harmony might be preferable, individual human rights can be disruptive; certainly, where self-interest is highly valued, harmony breaks down fast.

All we know is Western citizens are in a place of privilege, from which comes the luxury to think about and work toward ensuring others enjoy at least the basic human rights we often take for granted. Whether communal harmony or individual self-interest will prevail, neither can be satisfactorily assured without first establishing such prerequisite rights as freedom of thought and freedom from oppression – these, at least, should be irreducible and neither taken for granted nor ignored where they are absent.

Ryan Paine is an Asialink Writer-in-Residence with Nou Hach Literary Association in Cambodia.

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  • Lesley Stewart

    Well written Mr Paine, very very interesting reading

  • Ryan

    Thanks Mum! Love ya x