I’ll never forget the experience of visiting Cambodia during its first ever democratic election. It was a formative experience for the beautiful nation of Cambodia, and represented a seismic leap away from the authoritarian shadow that’s loomed over it for almost half a century. The atmosphere was electrified, the people emboldened and optimistic… and tense. Very tense. Despite democracy gaining a foothold, corruption was – and remains – an issue in Cambodia, making election season a captivating – if highly strung – time to visit Phnom-Penh. Of course, Cambodia isn’t the only country where the system is flawed, so here’s a very brief rundown of your place as a guest during times of civil unrest: it's important knowledge wherever you go, not just Cambodia and not just now.
1) BE SENSITIVE - witnessing the development of a country in real time can be an exhilarating, humbling & informative experience, but don't treat protests or marches as photo ops or tourist attractions (see number 5).
2) BE CAUTIOUS - in developing democracies, political dissent can get ugly, and there's often very little warning. Ask locals whether it's wise to stick around: your instincts are a good start, but if you don't speak the local language you may not recognise escalating rhetoric or alarming announcements.
3) BE RESPECTFUL - we have what appears to be a glut of information on election processes around the world, but YOU AREN'T AN EXPERT. When speaking to locals about the situation, don't weigh in with critical comparisons to your own country: see yourself as an impartial observer/journalist. It's not your fight!
4) KNOW THE LAW - no matter how flawed a country's legal system is, you are still subject to it!! I can't stress this enough - if you're caught up in a protest or demonstration, your passport won't exempt you from crowd-control methods, whether you think they're okay or not.
5) KNOW WHAT YOU CAN & CAN'T FILM: sort of an extension of number 4... some governments (and even locals) are extremely wary of their political process being documented. Openly filming demonstrations & unrest can be seen as disrespectful at best, and illegal at worst: you might have your camera/phone confiscated, be forced to delete photos/footage, be fined... or in extreme cases even detained under suspicion of being a foreign agent. That's a label you want to avoid: It goes without saying that suspected spies are rarely offered tea and biscuits. Communist & formerly communist countries in particular are NOT friendly in these situations.
6) THE FOREIGN OFFICE AREN'T AS HELPFUL AS YOU THINK. The FCO is overstretched, and the UK's consular resources are extremely limited - if you wind up in trouble with the law, DON'T expect Teresa May to parachute in with MI6 to extract you. Look up our extradition status with any country you visit, and remember that as a tourist you're not a "high value asset" and, as such, will probably not be the FCO's top priority.
If you’re ever in doubt about the safety of an area, always err on the side of caution: if a local says there's even the slightest chance of violence in a certain area, AVOID IT. Unrest in flawed/fledgling democracies is a whole lot more full-on than what we get here: tear-gas, water cannons, batons and rubber bullets DO exist, and your first-world passport – frankly – doesn't mean shit.
Democracy and dissent are amazing things - if you're privy to its formative days, consider yourself among the most privileged travellers on Earth: you're witnessing something incredible and rare, so treat the process with the deference it deserves.
- Walker Pappin