“Oh yeah, I’m afraid, I’m afraid, I’m afraid,” Long Kimheang, senior communications officer for the Housing Rights Task Force, said earlier this year. She was recording protesters and police on Human Rights Day last December when an officer pointed directly at her and said, “Don’t take video of us.” Several days later, she said, she was mugged. “A big man grabbed my bag. And everything was gone: my camera, my passport, my video, my money,” she said. “I can’t believe it’s an accident.”

Oppressive regimes breed and grow in an atmosphere of fear, both real and perceived. And it often leads to silence.

“The freedom to speak… it’s not strong,” radio journalist Mam Sonando said just days after his release from prison in March. He’d spent eight months of a 20-year sentence locked up on insurrection charges that were eventually overturned. “I was thinking I might actually die in prison,” the 72-year-old said. “But I said so be it. I would die with honor.”

Other Cambodians go about their business quietly. They whisper in cafés, scanning the room for other watchful eyes. Cambodians who want jobs don’t speak ill of the CPP, a taxi driver said recently. He struggles to support aging parents and several siblings in school. He takes no chances with his words. Hun Sen, he said, is “like a rock,” and he is “like an egg.”

He continued, “Be careful. Because now my government is not so happy with the people like you.” It’s a risky enterprise in Cambodia today: taking pictures, taking notes, “talking to the people.”

Homepage photo by Jerry Redfern

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Karen Coates , author of Cambodia Now: Life in the Wake of War, is a senior fellow at Brandeis University's Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism. Her latest book, Eternal Harvest: The Legacy of American Bombs in Laos, co-authored with photojournalist Jerry Redfern, was published in December 2013.