The White Building and Narrative, part II

An earlier chapter of this project discusses the different narratives used by the press to discuss the White Building and what impact those narratives have on building residents, whose future tenancy is uncertain. Missing from this conversation of external narratives, however, was the question of what role internal narratives play in this story. What versions of past and present do White Building residents themselves use to discuss their relationship with their home? commerce in the White BuildingHow do these narratives differ from those used by the local and international press? And, when the issue of tenancy arises, how do players involved with this situation knowingly or unknowingly make varying use of narrative for their cause? In order to better understand the role narrative plays in the White Building tenancy case and where these narratives come from, it is instructive to step back and briefly examine the historical and cultural factors which contribute to making up the moral and intellectual framework guiding the tenants, the authorities, and those concerned members of the public advocating on the tenants behalf.


In the previous article, readers became familiar with the Cambodian tenancy rights NGO Sahmakum Teang Tnaut (STT) and their program development manager, Nora Lindstrom. Ms. Lindstrom describes her organization’s approach to advocacy as “rights based.” In the context of the over-populated White Building with its myriad documentation problems, she explains this to mean that she and her organization seek solely to establish who among the building’s many residents hold a legitimate claim to their flat and then advocate for their tenancy or ownership rights without regard to any external factors. In many cases this involves STT’s being deliberately unconcerned with residents’ involvement in the building’s widely known drug dealing and prostitution problems. In fact, as her work is uncovering, most of the building’s residents stand completely separate from (and highly opposed to) the criminal activity that takes place around their homes, but Sahmakum Teang Tanat will advocate even for those with criminal connections. The rights-based approach to advocacy, in other words, draws a clear distinction between one’s tenancy rights and other aspects of one’s life.


stairwell in the White Building   stairwell in the White Building   stairwell in the White Building

To a Western readership, this approach may seem to be an appropriate one. Indeed, to those raised with a Western sense of justice, the separation of rights (especially property rights) from the legality of one’s behavior is a logical conclusion (one will note that whatever punishments Western legal systems dictate for convicted criminals, they don’t involve the seizure of property). The reason for this stems back to the way Enlightenment era libertarian philosophy has shaped modern, Western notions of ethics and justice. If the reader will forgive the impending over-simplification, Western ideas of justice tend to be, like STT’s approach to advocacy, “rights based.” That is to say, Westerners define the parameters of their moral beliefs and allow themselves the freedom to exercise a full spectrum of behavior inside their moral limitations. If behavior remains within the boundaries delineated, one considers oneself to be behaving ethically. This view of morality which emphasizes freedom within defined limitations explains the kind of ethical compartmentalization that allows actions in one category to be seen as completely removed from behavior in another – and in the case of the White Building, it explains why a Western participant or observer may find justice in STT’s willingness to advocate for the very members of the community most responsible for its decline. Westerners may well be outraged by the criminal activity in the White Building, but would tend to agree that it is a separate issue from property rights and thus should be dealt with separately.

on the roof of the White Building

inside a White Building apartment
An Eastern sense of justice, particularly Southeast Asian, on the other hand, tends to not be rights-based but rather, desert-based. In a Southeast Asian cultural context, rights and entitlements have little to do with any conversation involving justice. Instead good things in life are deserved as a result of doing good things, and bad as a result of doing bad, even where there is no direct cause/effect relationship. Southeast Asians, for example, are unlikely to be disturbed by government abuses of power if such abuses are perceived to be directed towards criminals. For evidence of this one can look to two recent cases from Thailand: former Prime Minister Thaksin’s use of police intimidation and extra-judicial killing under the guise of a “war on drugs” and the Abhisit military’s use of targeted assassination against anti-government protest leaders. With scant exception, neither of these cases elicited much in terms of public outcry, not because Thai people are unconcerned with justice, but because the victims in both situations were cast by the media as reprehensible. Nonetheless, the same public finds itself outraged by examples of mild injustice directed towards those viewed as upstanding, productive members of society. Notable in this case is the reaction in Thailand among Thaksin supporters to the former prime minister’s 2008 corruption charge. While few deny the accuracy of the conviction, the perceived good he’s done for the country (in the eyes of his followers) far outweighs any harm, and makes his prosecution – even for an admittedly valid charge – seem an act of egregious injustice. Such apparently inconsistent reactions are neither the result of callousness nor caprice, but rather of a holistic moral outlook that is less concerned with specific rights and more concerned with overall just deserts.

The relevance of this to narrative, tenancy issues, and the White Building is particularly notable when one begins to examine how these different understandings of morality and justice influence both the different narratives used by building residents and the international community and also how those narratives are taken by the public and the authorities. While I was staying in the White Building, I had considerable contact with both building residents and their NGO advocates. During this time, I noticed a distinct disparity in the way the two groups discussed their tenancy claims. The NGOs, mostly led by Westerners working within a inside a White Building apartmentWestern-derived legal framework and subject to their own cultural sense of justice, talked about proving length of residency, leases and contracts. The tenants themselves, meanwhile, calling upon a local sense of justice, invoked needs and good deeds: “I have children in school,” “I have parents I’m supporting,” “I work two jobs,” “I survived the Khmer Rouge,” “I have nowhere else to go,” etc. In other words, NGOs argued that tenants had a right to stay based on historical precedent, whereas tenants themselves argued that they deserved to stay because of their contributions to the community.


The disparity between the two narratives becomes particularly worth addressing in light of the previously described criminal elements operating from the building. What role the building’s prostitution and drug dealing play in the case presented by the tenants and their advocates has a profound affect on how such arguments are heard by other Cambodians, be they ordinary citizens or the authorities themselves. The Western approach which sees tenancy rights as independent of criminal activity and general moral behavior – and thereby insists on protecting pimps and methamphetamine dealers – runs the risk baffling and alienating a Cambodian public already, for historical and cultural reasons, extremely reluctant to confront the authority of government. To a neighboring Cambodian, whose sense of moral justice is more holistic and less compartmentalized, the idea of advocating for the rights of criminals can seem at best misguided and at worst, suspicious.


The remaining player in this situation whose narrative has yet to be addressed is that of the authorities. Nominally acting within a legal framework anteceded by Western models first established in a colonial era (based itself on a Western sense of justice), but operating in a Southeast Asian cultural context, the narrative used by the Cambodian government should be particularly worth scrutinizing. Rather than the subtle and nuanced narrative one might expect emerging from these circumstances, however, the authorities inspecting the White Buildingapproach taken by the Cambodian authorities is a conspicuously silent one. The Cambodian government, long accustomed to making decisions behind closed doors without public consultation has dealt with the White Building issue in the same silent, autocratic manner that characterize most of its decisions. White Building residents and the public are left to determine the authorities’ intentions and speculate about their future security based on a handful of public actions.


These intentions, however, seem unfortunately clear in light of recent events. In 2009 the Cambodian authorities abruptly evicted the tenants of an adjacent building once a part of a greater White Building complex. The police arrived without warning with tear gas and bulldozers in the middle of the night and residents were forced to gather their belongings and evacuate immediately or risk their physical safety. More recently, in August of 2011, during my stay in the White Building, residents were subject to sudden building inspections involving the immediate demolition of unlicensed modifications of their flat (awnings, porches, etc.). At the same time, throughout the city, forced, uncompensated or unfairly compensated eviction of low income neighborhoods to make room for high end real estate development has become unfortunately common in other parts of Phnom Penh, as is most famously demonstrated by the highly publicized case of the Boeng Kak Lake community. In light of such actions, the intentions of the Cambodian government seem all too clear in spite of their relative silence.


What approach, then, is proper for an advocacy group or a concerned citizen to take? When an entire community is threatened with the abrupt, uncompensated loss of their homes, but a small minority have used those homes for reprehensible purposes, which narrative and what advocacy strategy represent the most effective way to protect the rights of those at risk? On one hand the legal framework under which the authorities are operating is based on Western models derived from a Western sense of justice. On the other hand, the Cambodian public is more likely subject to local, Southeast Asian ideas about justice based on a different value system than the one on which the legal system is modeled (as are individual members of the authorities, should they choose to be concerned with justice). The government, meanwhile, while notably silent, has taken a decidedly antagonistic approach to the situation – perhaps negating the effectiveness of any narrative by simply refusing to engage with public.

authorities inspecting the White Building

The answers to these questions are complicated. The two narratives are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but an NGO’s final policy choices are. The best strategy for the activist or concerned citizen likely involves a more nuanced approach sensitive to different cultural notions of justice. For example, a public awareness campaign targeting neighboring communities employing a desert-based narrative could be coupled with a rights-based approach to dealing with the legal system. Rights-based advocacy on tenancy issues could be partnered with additional activism campaigns aiming to help improve the prostitution and drug situation, so that everyone’s rights are protected, while the safety of the community is still addressed. There are, of course, numerous complicating factors as well: the authoritarian government, used to a docile citizenry, could find the Western rights-based approach to be too confrontational and actually become more antagonistic as a result (a concern expressed by a few White Building residents already); residents of Phnom Penh living near the White Building may be so fed up with the building’s criminal element that they are unsympathetic to any argument whatsoever. I don’t presume to offer a solution here – merely to encourage the international community active in Phnom Penh to be aware of how different cultural ideas about justice can affect the way narratives are heard and to be sensitive to these differences when engaging local groups. The details I leave to the NGOs, to advocates and activists, to the professionals from Cambodia and abroad working on behalf of anyone in Cambodia affected by tenancy rights issues. Their work is surely needed.


on the roof of the White Building

The White Building, hallway    The White Building, hallway

on the roof of the White Building