Over 70 students filled Peterutti Lounge Monday night for the opening convocation of the 10th annual Southeast Asian Heritage Week. The week, titled "Re(RIGHT)ing What We SEA," is sponsored by the Watson Institute, the Program in Literary Arts and the Third World Center and will feature events including a traditional activity night, a debate on the Burmese elections and a cultural performance titled "Legends of the SEA" by a Balinese dancer.
"In order to value the students and value the faculty at Brown, we need to make note that we are here in the community," Rujapak Sutiwisesak '12, one of the coordinators of the event, told The Herald.
The opening convocation consisted of a welcome by co-coordinators Sutiwisesak and Sharmala Narasingam '13, both international students from Southeast Asia, reflections by seniors on their experiences as Southeast Asian students and a talk with Visiting Fellow in the Watson Institute Kho Tararith and translator Sokvann Sam.
"Geographically and historically, Southeast Asia has been situated between China and India. There has been a growing importance placed on this region," Sutiwisesak said to the audience.
But Sutiwisesak acknowledged that there are still many problems in the area.
Tararith, a Cambodian poet, short story writer and activist against social and economic problems in Cambodia, addresses many of the problems of Southeast Asia in his work. He became a fellow in August after being invited to be part of the Watson Institute and literary arts graduate program's International Writing Project.
Tararith spoke about many contemporary issues in Cambodia, emphasizing problems with land rights. He cited the ongoing Shukaku Inc. sand-pumping issue in the Boeung Kak Lake area of Cambodia as an example.
Shukaku Inc., owned by the Cambodian People's Party Senator Lao Meng Khin, began pumping sand into the lake as part of a redevelopment project, according to a Nov. 8 article in the Phnom Penh Post, an English-Cambodian newspaper. Over 3,000 families live in the area, and the pumping has resulted in the flooding and destruction of more than a dozen homes, Tararith said.
"English is a language of universal communication," Tararith told The Herald. Because many Cambodians do not speak English, they cannot obtain news from outside the country and most of the media within Cambodia is controlled by the government, he said.
Writers cannot write what they wish if they want to receive support from the government, he said during the talk. "Everything is spied on by people who have ranking."
Writers who have tried to fight back by criticizing the government are either put in prison or mysteriously murdered, he said. "We want power. We want to write and we want to criticize, but we do not just want to please the government."
Sam, a refugee from the Khmer Rouge rule, also spoke about his experiences in Cambodia and in the U.S. "The Cambodian government pays no attention to the people's cry," he told the audience.
Interested students suggested bringing outside news to Cambodians through the Internet, but Sam answered that not all Cambodians have the luxury of the Internet. "It is very rare," he said. "Only the city people can get access to the Internet, and the government checks all the lines."
"People abroad can express, but how many people can read?" he added.
In the face of this bleak outlook, one student asked why people like Kho and Sam continue to resist.
"We have to show (the Cambodian people) what is good," Kho answered. "I try to show them what is right about human rights and democracy that I see because I can come abroad."
"There is so much potential in this region that is always forgotten," Narasingam said. "We are survivors."