Stories from the Defenders: a review of Seeking Justice in Cambodia

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Image by Sharon Ang from Pixabay

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Seeking Justice in Cambodia: Human Rights Defenders Speak Out

Sue Coffey

Melbourne University Publishing

Cambodia is a country that has experienced immense suffering due to the Khmer Rouge genocide under the leadership of Pol Pot in the late 1970s, Vietnamese invasion and ongoing socio-political and economic suppression. Modern Cambodia continues to struggle with the effects of autocratic rule and justice and human rights are continually challenged.

It is with this backdrop that Sue Coffey’s book Seeking Justice in Cambodia, Human Rights Defenders Speak Out sought out individuals within civil society organisations who actively fight for human rights and democracy in Cambodia. Coffey was a communications advisor attached to the NGO Forum on Cambodia during 2012-2013 and witnessed first-hand the impact that governmental corruption and lack of transparency in decision making can do to vulnerable communities.

Despite having human rights organisations in Cambodia since the early 1990s, the volatile political environment and lack of awareness amongst domestic and international scholars of human rights has meant that oppositional voices to the ruling government and its policies are hidden, or at the very least suppressed for fear of retribution.

Coffey has been able to document the stories of just some of these courageous individuals, firstly in order to preserve the authenticity of their experiences and secondly, to ensure wider dissemination of these stories as they make up the fabric of Cambodia’s human rights and democracy struggle. Featuring the stories of fifteen individuals, taken at various times, from founders of human rights leagues to president of a national party that recently ended up being arrested for treason to a land activist imprisoned for speaking out about corruption in land development between private developers and the ruling government, the book provides readers with a glimpse into the difficulties, and achievements of human rights defenders in a tightly controlled environment.

Some of the interviewees are in exile, such as Thun Saray the founder and President of the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association who speaks frankly about the dangers of setting up such an organisation that promoted human rights and democracy. Other interviewees point to deep issues between religion, government and society with Coffey including the Venerable Loun Sovath, a Buddhist monk who has been banned by the Cambodian Buddhist hierarchy from seeking refuge in temples due to his vocal commitment to human rights and his questioning of forced evictions of people from areas of commercial interest as a person whose story needs to be shared.

Seeking Justice in Cambodia, Human Rights Defenders Speak Out is a collection of personal stories that provide real insight into the complexities of the human rights landscape in Cambodia, and stories which deserve to be disseminated and read widely. Coffey’s desire to memorialise the efforts of these individuals can only provide inspiration for others in following their path to being human rights defenders.

Originally published at Right Now.

Radical Heart, the inside story of the Uluru Statement of the Heart

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Image by faszynelka from Pixabay

Radical Heart

Shireen Morris

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Melbourne University Publishing

Dr Shireen Morris is a constitutional lawyer and postdoctoral fellow at the University of Melbourne where she focuses on indigenous constitutional recognition. Hailing from Fijian-Indian immigrant parents who made their home in Melbourne, Morris worked for seven years on the Uluru Statement from the Heart, a statement that is controversial in terms of recognition of First Peoples with the Australian Constitution. Her book, Radical Heart is an exploration of her involvement in the campaign for constitutional recognition.

The Uluru Statement from the Heart came from a constitutional convention supported by the Referendum Council, a bipartisan council jointly appointed by then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull and opposition leader Bill Shorten. Though there was a focus on the calls to alter the Constitution in recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people the statement also called for reform around legislative change with the creation of a Makarrata Commission which would supervise agreements between the government and indigenous groups as well as the promotion of truth-telling in regard to indigenous culture, law, customs and, of course, the effects of colonialism.

Makarrata is a Yolngu word meaning “coming together after a struggle”, the name is suitable considering the injustices of the past.

Early on in Radical Heart, Morris announces that the lack of First People’s inclusion and participation in politics and the lack of Constitutional recognition is due in equal parts to politics as well as a “lack of morally courageous leadership”. Morris argues for the need for consistent and strong advocacy for indigenous recognition in the Australian Constitution, which would also require the formation of a constitutionally guaranteed indigenous advisory body, the Makarrata Commission. Makarrata is a Yolngu word meaning “coming together after a struggle”, the name is suitable considering the injustices of the past. Moving through the book it is not hard to see why Morris positions this statement front and centre given the complexities of the topic, and the voices involved – seemingly at times competing with each other.

Radical Heart is an important contribution to understanding the limits of constitutional reform in Australia as well as providing clear insights into exactly why this is required.

Morris’ strength lies in her ability to take readers on an intimate journey into the campaign around the Uluru Statement from the Heart, from personal stories about working with Noel Pearson, member of the Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition of Indigenous Australians in 2011, who would admonish her work in front of policymakers in a bid to make her consider it more fully; to the delicate and often political tête-à-tête with constitutional defenders, left- and right-leaning politicians and key indigenous experts such as Marcia Langton.

Deeply telling, the lead up to the final chapter in which the Uluru Statement from the Heart is formally rejected sets out the ways in which government opposition and public uncertainty impacted upon recognition of not only the importance of the Statement but also its aims and future impacts on Australian legal, socio-cultural, political and educational frameworks. Radical Heart is an important contribution to understanding the limits of constitutional reform in Australia as well as providing clear insights into exactly why this is required.

Morris succinctly points out six key lies that need to be corrected when analysing governmental rejection of the Statement as being “neither desirable nor capable of winning acceptance at referendum” – collectively they showcase the fundamental misunderstanding of the role that indigenous Australians have within contemporary Australian society. They are at the heart of Australia and without giving the First Peoples a voice firmly enshrined in the Constitution, all Australians cannot move forward as a nation.

HRAFF 2019: The Panama Papers Review

The Panama Papers

Image courtesy of HRAFF

The Panama Papers 

Directed by Alex Winter

We live in a world of collected information. Data is created, collected and maintained in almost all aspects of our daily lives. This data collection continues with government, multinational organisations and other business relying more and more on the ability to transact across global networks, sharing data with each other, and of course, shifting data between each other in a way that has never before been possible.

Over the course of a decade we have witnessed, under the organisation Wikileaks, the release of thousands of documentation related to topics such as the War on Terror and potential war crimes, cables about political interference in trade, emails concerning presidential races and collusion and most recently the private letters of Pope Francis in regards to a power struggle within the Catholic Church and the Knights of Malta. Wikileaks had been aided by former US Army soldier Chelsea Manning in the release of classified or sensitive documentation around what was termed ‘Iraq War Logs’ and ‘Afghan War Diary’ with media organisation Der Spiegel arguing that they were the greatest leaks in military history as they brought to light crucial and hidden information about US involvement in civilian deaths.

In 2013 Edward Snowden, former Central Intelligence Agency and sub-contractor to the National Security Agency gave information to various news organisations about widespread surveillance by the Five Eyes alliance made up of the United States, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom on citizens through mobile phones, internet usage, emails and instant messaging.

It is argued that both Wikileaks and Snowden released information to increase awareness about the dark areas of government, the areas where there is very little transparency in regards to decision making and even less in regards to accountability. The amount of data that both Wikileaks and Snowden released however pales in comparison in regards to the biggest release of data and documentation under what is termed as The Panama Papers.

The Panama Papers comprise of over 2.6 terabytes of data and include approximately 11.5 million documents in the form of emails, photos, Pdf files and internal database information.  It is the single biggest leak in history so far, but what is it and what does it all mean?

Alex Winter’s documentary of the same name The Panama Papers rips open the biggest global corruption scandal in history. It starts with a simple message of “Hello. This is John Doe. Interested in Data?” and sends journalists down a path which leads to Russian President Vladimir Putin, Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Chinese Politburo members and former Icelandic Prime Minister Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson to name a few of the high-profile leaders, politicians and celebrities hiding away billions and billions of dollars in a bid to avoid paying tax.

Winter’s fascinating documentary focuses on the painstaking collaboration that occurred between Süddeutsche Zeitung, one of the largest newspapers in Germany and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), where journalists – often at great risk to their own lives – started to untangle the web of deceit around tax avoidance and the shift of billions of dollars of money through offshore and shell accounts lead by multi-national Panamanian firm Mossack Fonesca. Mossack Fonesca, powerfully aligned with offices around the world often had criminal clients with strong connections to organised crime and arguably lauded over the biggest international conspiracy in modern times.

Over 370 journalists spanning some 70 countries were involved in the data interpretation and Winter’s The Panama Papers expertly tells the story of some of those whom were intimately involved, illustrating the lengths required to safeguard not only the journalists but the whole effort itself, for the long arm of corruption was never far away. In presenting The Panama Papers Winter contributes towards shining a light over the dark areas of government and business following on from the work of Wikileaks and Snowden in illuminating corruption and greed.

Since the release of The Panama Papers, it is estimated that almost $1.2 billion dollars has been recovered in back-taxes and penalties. Winters riveting documentary of the same name can only assist in helping people understanding the lengths to which the wealthy will go to in order to sequester money and to avoid tax. It’s scary and confronting but something that definitely needs to be dealt with – power, government and money do not make for good bedfellows.

We can only wonder what the next big release of data will be about and brace ourselves.

Originally published here.

The Power of Human Connection: a review of The Fox Hunt

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The Fox Hunt: Four strangers, thirteen days, and one man’s amazing journey to safety

Mohammed Al Samawi

Scribe Publications

Mohammed Al Samawi’s The Fox Hunt starts dramatically on March 22, 2015 in Aden, Yemen. Al Samawi is stuck in the bathroom in his new apartment where he’d fled to escape the constant threats on his life during what turned out to be the beginning of the Yemeni Civil War which still rages unabated. With mixed factions vying for control of the entire country, from President Hadi loyalists and his supporters to Houthi rebels and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) on the other side.  Indeed, the AQAP checkpoint is seen through the small gap in his curtains and social media checks, albeit timed to when the area has working electricity, allows Al Samawi to keep check of the escalating dangerous situation.

As a vocal Yemini peace activist, Al Samawi was keenly aware of the danger in which he found himself in, indeed, this is explored in memoir style as he recounts how he overcame childhood loneliness arising from disability, heard in taunts such as “Mohammed the maimed” or his own creation of Ana hemar “I am a donkey,” to wanting to explore and learn about other cultures and religions in a more meaningful way. This, we find, is quite difficult in Yemen where there are strict parameters around religion in the predominately Muslim country.

In writing The Fox Hunt Al Samawi offers us a glimpse into Yemen’s social and religious history and the complex ways in which different countries and factions have had their hand in creating and maintaining a “Yemini” identity.

Coming from an influential family who are said to be able to trace their lineage back to the Prophet Mohammad, Al Samawi writes about the influence of Saudi Arabia on the educational curriculum and religious ideology. He writes, too, of primary school lessons denouncing Israel and the Jewish faith and the shooting of Palestinian child Muhammad al-Durrah during the second intifada that impressed upon other Yemini children the vulnerability of youth and, with the clarity that only retrospective consideration offers, the hatred that comes with indoctrination against everyone classed as ‘other’.

The author’s questioning of the status quo leads to a fascinating and intensely personal journey in which he starts to question everything that he has been taught, from anti-semitic rhetoric to how to deal with personal relationships – and forgoing potential love for an arranged marriage – to the big-ticket item of wanting to explore the various interfaith dialogues that he started to come across in his quest to educate himself about religions other than his own. It’s this exploration that makes Al Samawi so dangerous to the newly emerging Yemen backed by religious hardliners and extremists.

Al Samawi’s The Fox Hunt’s personable writing style easily draws the reader in to not only the authors personal life, but the lives of others who feature throughout the book. As friends and acquaintances pull together to try to save the life of one person who is trying to bridge a gap in progressing interfaith dialogue – we become keenly aware too of the impact one person can have and the change that one person can bring.

Originally published at Right Now.

Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia: a review

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Photo by Steve Johnson from Pexels

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Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia

Edited by Anita Heiss

Black Inc.

Dr Anita Heiss, Wiradjuri woman and prolific writer with the well-known 2012 memoir Am I Black Enough For You in her back catalogue, has published the anthology Growing up Aboriginal in Australia, a collection of short stories from a diverse number of indigenous Australians that speak from the heart and provide deeply personal insights into what it means to be an Aboriginal Australian.

A nationwide call out for nonfiction submissions saw more than 120 accounts about growing up over country from Noongar in Western Australia to Gumbaynggirr in New South Wales to Kuku Yalanji in the rainforest areas of Far North Queensland and all places in-between. The submissions chosen for the book are therefore just a part of the personal experience that individuals wanted to share with a wider audience, a part carefully curated to illustrate the breadth of experiences so that readers may ponder on the content of stories not yet shared into the public realm, but which are very much a part of the shared experience of Indigenous Australians.

While each story is as individual as the person sharing it, there are experiences that are shared amongst the writers that deeply impact upon themselves, their families and their own sense of growing up and identifying as an Aboriginal Australian.

The Stolen Generation, the forced removal of children from their parents from 1869 onwards, has had catastrophic effects with the suffering passed down to each generation ­– if they’ve been able to reconnect.

Experiencing overt and subtle racism and a feeling of trying to find self between “two worlds resting in on each other,” as eloquently described by Evelyn Araluen in the piece Finding ways home is also a shared experience amongst contributors.

Araluen, at twenty-four, reflects upon how her identity changed in the shift from primary school to teenage hood and high school and how she was called names such as “shit-skin” and “Abo” at the same time she was she learning to celebrate her ancestral heritage.  Alice Eather’s Yúya Karrabúrra which starts with an evocative poem using some Ndjébbana language also speaks of walking between two worlds, mentioning too the prevalence suicide has on communities and young indigenous people. Alice’s contribution is particularly poignant as, at the age of twenty-eight, she took her own life.

The pieces vary in length, ranging from two pages such as Taryn Little’s Just a young girlwhere she writes of her memory of smashing cherries, at twelve-years old, into beloved cousins at a family friend’s farm, to the longer A story from my life by William Russell on the complexity of identity. Each contribution though has a strong connection with being an Aboriginal Australian, on country, about country, talking about awareness of ancestral heritage or the passing down of memories and identity that makes each writer unique but part of the tens of thousands of years of history that follows them on their journey in contemporary Australia.

Growing up Aboriginal in Australia is an important anthology that serves as a collection of public history, the personal tales providing insight into the everyday experiences that have shaped and continue to shape Aboriginal Australians – in many different and diverse ways.

Originally published at Right Now

Queer Screen 2019: Right Now’s top picks

Rafiki 

Directed by Wanuri Kahiu

Rafiki, directed by Wanuri Kahiu, has an interesting backstory in that it is the first Kenyan film to make its debut at the Cannes Film Festival, and there was talk of it being submitted as Kenya’s entry for Best Foreign Language film at the 2018 Academy Awards. But in order to get there, and to have audiences view Rafiki, Kahiu had to bring a lawsuit against the Kenya Film Classification Board and the Kenyan Attorney General.

The promotion of same sex relationships in Kenya is illegal under the Kenyan Penal Code so the depiction of a blossoming romantic relationship between two young women, Kena and Ziki, whose fathers are political rivals, was originally banned by the Kenya Film Classification Board due to the films lesbian themes.

In order to have the film, with its sublime hyper-real colours and beautiful cinematography submitted to the Academy Awards, it needed to be released domestically. A High Court challenge resulted in a temporary lift on the ban of the film and audiences sold out the screenings. Watching Rafiki, it is easy to see why. Kahiu has captured the tenderness and excitement of friendship and love between Kena and Ziki, who don’t want to be “typical Kenyan girls”, whilst also highlighting the danger around the expression of their relationship within their tight-knit community in Nairobi.

The film moves along to a great soundtrack that ebbs and flows along with their story. Whilst Kenya didn’t end up submitting Rafiki to the Academy Awards the hype around the film is well deserved and will have you thinking about it long after you’ve left the cinema.

Rafiki will screen for the Closing Night Gala at 7pm, on Thursday the 28th of February. Tickets can be purchased here. Watch the trailer below.

Originally published here.

AACTA DOCS FEST | Tales of Loss, Redemption and Forgiveness

Some tales are hidden and wait for the right filmmaker to come along and weave their stories into something that creates such an impression on the audience that they’ll forever carry a part of that story with them. Gabrielle Brady’s ISLAND OF THE HUNGRY GHOSTSMathew Sleeth’s GUILTY and Catherine Scott’s BACKTRACK BOYS are stories that will stay in the minds of audiences long after the films end.

Christmas Island is full of hungry ghosts; ghosts of people who have died and not received a proper burial and ghosts who are living, caught between the injustices of the Australian immigration system and the brutality of the place that they flee.

Brady’s ISLAND OF THE HUNGRY GHOSTS is as hauntingly beautiful as it is distressing, with Michael Latham’s cinematography expertly capturing both the volatility and vulnerability of the island. Christmas Island is both a safe haven to the island’s famous red crabs who are cared for in their migration from jungle to sea, but also a jail and a place of suffering for those seeking asylum in Australia. The film follows Poh Lin Lee, a trauma counsellor who provides detainees with the opportunity to talk about their traumatic past. Yet these opportunities are never enough to alleviate the untold hurt and suffering of those seeking asylum who are detained indefinitely in the high-security Australian run detention centre. The island holds its secrets well and Lee’s struggle to navigate the increasingly political environment leaves her with few choices, impacting heavily on those she cares about.

Loneliness and isolation is a theme that connects Brady’s ISLAND OF THE HUNGRY GHOSTS with Sleeth’s documentary GUILTY. The last time a prisoner faced corporal punishment in Australia was the 1967 hanging of Ronald Ryan. Whilst Australia abolished the death penalty, numerous countries around the world still practice it and Indonesia, Australia’s closest Asian neighbour, is one such country.

GUILTY is a story of personal redemption and a nation’s heartache. Expertly capturing the final 72 hours of Myuran Sukumaran‘s life on death row in the infamous Kerobokan prison, the film offers a heartfelt glimpse into the transformative power of art in an contemptible situation. GUILTY showcases the dual fragility and strength of the human condition. Interspersed with archival footage from Sukumaran’s sentencing and newspaper reportage, and reflecting cinematographic influences from artistic expression the film is a moving tribute to Sukumaran’s legacy as well as an indictment on corporal punishment.

Forgiveness and redemption often go hand-in-hand and in Catherine Scott’s BACKTRACK BOYS the power of self-belief and the offer of non-judgemental assistance to vulnerable boys is a potent mix.

When Bernie Shakeshaft was younger he spent time in Tenant Creek where he was taught to track wild dogs, not by pushing them away but by listening to them and instead having them approach him. The lessons learned have kept Shakeshaft in good stead with the Backtrack Boys volunteer group he created, made up of caring adults, at-risk young boys and a group of dedicated working dogs looking for their own safe place in the world. Set near Armidale in regional New South Wales, the film exposes the harshness of the juvenile criminal justice system and the daily struggle to keep young boys from being caught up in it. Using their own words, BACKTRACK BOYS’ intimate exploration of the value of at-risk boys believing in themselves tugs at the heartstrings and provides a glimpse into the vulnerability of all involved in wanting these children to succeed.

You can read the original here.