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At Harvard, Room To Write Uncensored

Kho Tararith, a Cambodian fellow with the Harvard Scholars at Risk program, says Cambodian writers and researchers still face strong censorship.
Kho Tararith, a Cambodian fellow with the Harvard Scholars at Risk program, says Cambodian writers and researchers still face strong censorship.

Although violence against writers and academics in Cambodia has decreased in recent years, many say they still face strong censorship. A literary program at Harvard University, in Massachusetts, provides a place for writers from countries like Cambodia to work uncensored.

Harvard’s Scholars at Risk program put on the “Living Magazine” in April, where written works were performed for an audience, and where writers like Keo Chanbo, who is originally from Battambang, told their stories.

“I had to flee the country for my life, but I can’t stop writing,” Keo Chanbo, who now lives in Minnesota, told the audience of about 100 students, professors and local Cambodian-Americans. She wept as she spoke. “Writing is my life.”

Kho Tararith, who is a fellow with the Scholars at Risk program, recited a poem called “Bopha,” which describes his nostalgia for Cambodia and is, like many of his poems, subtly political.

“In Cambodia, writing not withstanding, Cambodians don’t even dare to openly discuss or read anything critical of powerful people,” he said in an interview. “This might be due to their fears—fears of imprisonment—they fear that what they say might affect politicians and the powerful and cause them trouble. This is why everyone keeps quiet.”

Cambodia’s information environment remains highly restricted. The US-based Freedom House has categorized the country as “not free” in political and civil rights, including literary freedom. Some critics also say censorship has taken hold in the country’s universities, where many topics are unofficially taboo.

At the Royal University of Law and Economics this year, academic leaders banned thesis topics that included land disputes, the Cambodian Red Cross, run by the prime minister’s wife, and the burgeoning stock exchange. Cambodian university officials have defended the practice of banning topics, given a variety of justifications, including the prevention of plagiarism and the repetition of annual thesis topics.

Kho Tararith said such literary and academic censorship goes against the academic environment fostered by the US and other Western countries.

In the US, he said, “we can write about anything. They even give us money to write. They say, ‘All you need is to submit a proposal,’ and they never bar us from any topics.”

Aisha Down, a student of literature at Harvard who spent nine months in Cambodia, said she did not immediately realize Cambodia was a censored society, because there are no obvious censors. However, she said, she came to realize that a culture of fear and violence contributes to self-censorship.

“And because you don’t know where it comes from…there’s no way to really defend against it,” she said.

But the effects of censorship go beyond personal security. They can also affect a society over time, said Steven Pinker, a renowned professor of psychology at Harvard.

“So how was it that in the ‘killing fields’ in Cambodia, the Holocaust, it looked like all of the people were fooled all of the time?” he said. “And one of the reasons is that the people were too intimidated to say what they wanted. You might have very few people actually believing the terrible ideology, but everyone thinks everyone else believes it because no one can say the truth because they’ll immediately get killed.”

Programs like Scholars at Risk can help writers from other countries develop their ideas outside of a repressive environment.

Jane Unrue, who is on the Scholars at Risk committee and organized the Living Magazine, said she hopes the program will inspire the writers of today and tomorrow. It has helped Kho Tararith already, she said before the Living Magazine performance. “I think that people are going to, especially tonight when they hear his poetry, they are going to know that he is an important poet.”