TedxPhnomPenh Recap

16 06 2012

Tedx was entertaining, inspiring and surprising. Packed with a dynamic and energizing line-up of speakers, the all-day event had sold out a couple of days before, heightening the anticipation. The talks were hosted by Princess Norodom Soma, who had fled Cambodia with her family during the Khmer Rouge. She was an endearing host, showing her Californian and Cambodian roots equally throughout. Between talks, she flopped a few jokes, but she also told moving stories of growing up as an immigrant in the US with a family who, even to this day, does not like to talk of Cambodia’s most difficult era.

During the talks themselves, I geeked out over Gapminder statistics in a presentation on using data to support NGOs in Cambodia. My mind was stretched as I watched a group of Cambodians use music and drama to deal with the pain of their past. I was convinced that all I want to listen to from now on is a fierce Cambodian woman rap in Khmer. I was touched by the stories of several Cambodians overcoming the odds and becoming successful and happy despite their difficult beginnings. I laughed at one man’s journey from Budapest to Cambodia in a Trabant. Plus, a heck of a lot more!

Throughout the day, the speeches were punctuated with videos from the Ted  Talks website as well. Having previously seen Sir Ken Robinson’s talk on creativity in schools, my favorite video shown at Tedx was Dan Pink’s presentation on the science behind motivation. Another noteworthy talk, on the Egyptian Revolution, prompted the host to remind the audience that all of us, as individuals and collectively, can be a part of making change happen. She followed that up by saying, “The Arab Spring should not be contained to the Middle East,” insinuating that a political shift needs to happen in Cambodia as well. It was an extremely powerful statement to  make in this country. It also seemed to me like an extremely risky one, but apparently it fell just within the boundaries of what’s allowed. Because although that statement was cleared, an entire Tedx presentation was deemed to be a threat and was cancelled last-minute.

The presentation that was slated to be TedxPhnomPenh’s dramatic finale never made it to the stage. The event was going to feature prominent Cambodian activists, including the Venerable Loun Sovath, reading accounts of recent violent land disputes while images of the conflicts would play in the background. However, the finale never debuted because the venue, a prestigious university in the city center, thought that it “might cause problems with the government.” Human rights activists are labeling this as self-censorship and as a lack of the freedom of expression. The organizers of TedxPhnomPenh posted this official response, although it seems that their language, and the language used in various other articles about the incident, has softened since last week.

Loun Sovath, a well-known monk and activist

Looking at the event itself, TedxPhnomPenh was truly inspirational, featuring many wonderful speakers from both the expat and Khmer communities. However, the events surrounding the finale left many audience members feeling jaded. The day was truly a microcosm of life in Cambodia, simultaneously filled with hope and inspiration, frustration and defeat.

All of the talks will be posted online in about a month. Look for the links here.





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