Help me stay out of prison in authoritarian countries.
July 23, 2009 3:19 PM   Subscribe

Doing research in authoritarian countries. What is your experience?

I am working on my dissertation proposal; I have several ideas, all of which would see me moving to one of several authoritarian countries to conduct field research of a political nature. The degree of authoritarianism differs between countries. I do have some experience living, for a short period of time, in a "friendly" (to the United States) authoritarian country, but not conducting research there.

I am curious about your experiences -- how easy was it for you to get access to data? Were you able to conduct your research relatively freely? Did you find yourself worried about what you were writing due to potential ramifications? How much information did the government request with respect to your research? Were you able to return after publishing your research? Bonus question -- if applying for a Fulbright-Hayes Dissertation Development grant (which must be approved by a host institution in the desired country), did you run into problems? Any and all advice welcome.

None of my dissertation ideas amount to "why country X is an authoritarian hellhole and the government should be overthrown" but each would require acknowledging, to some extent, that authoritarianism is the order of the day and the potential impact this may or may not have had on various civil society elements. Nor am I so naïve as to attempt to get locals to opine about the ills of their government, so I don't need advice on how to conduct a politically appropriate/sensitive conversation. I am particularly concerned, however, about monarchies that have laws against speaking ill of the monarch (an infraction that is broadly defined to say the least and is often used to punish political enemies). Although I have rarely read of non-nationals being imprisoned for this, I do not know the extent to which they traveled in the country after publishing their work.

Apologies for some vagueness.
posted by proj to Education (5 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Here are a few countries I know of through friends who research Southeast Asian political science:

Thailand, which is a dysfunctional democracy, has strict lese majeste rules that could get you arrested, but only if you actually criticize the king. Compared to the countries that surround it, political freedoms are almost guaranteed there.

Its next door neighbor Burma is a military dictatorship but with an odd insistence on sticking to the rule of law in isolated instances-- for example, it allows the National League for Democracy to exist as a political party even though it was elected in the ignored 1990 elections and is a certain threat to military rule. There are some freed NLD members and 88 movement figures you could talk to if you have connections, and I have seen these people being publicly interviewed in foreign media, so I guess they're okay with it. You are reasonably safe traveling around Burma, if you use your head and don't approach strangers on the street (it's estimated 1/3 of all citizens are employed by the military). You will be required to fill out endless paperwork and might get nudged back to Rangoon but they probably won't arrest you for travel. However, if the military discovers that a Burmese citizen has talked about politics with a foreigner they will go to jail. You should be worried for the safety of anyone you interview from there, even via satellite phone. You also must carry out all political conversations in a private space. Cafes are popular hangout spots but also a great place to keep an eye on foreigners.

The supposedly authoritarian government of Laos is too poor to do anything at all so as far as I know you can do whatever you want there. It's also a rather safe place to travel even without friends in the area. It is altogether possible, though, that you could be the first foreigner ever arrested in Laos for political insurrection, or get kidnapped by bandits.

Bhutan is a democracy but speaking ill of the king could get you lynched.
posted by shii at 3:47 PM on July 23, 2009 [2 favorites]

I do research in a semi-authoritarian country. Issues you may want to consider:

- IRB approval is a bitch. Recently I wrote a proposal to interview activists. I cannot begin to tell you what a PITA it was to "prove" that I was doing all that I could to protect subjects' safety. Make sure that you have an advisor/committee member that is extremely familiar with the process so that you can have some help.

- In-country help. I was a Fulbrighter. I found it best to not talk to my department about my "secondary" projects of a political nature. I would recommend having a touchy-feely "primary" project as a cover of sorts.

- I conduct my research in a country that I've been in-and-out of for over a decade. I have good relationships with people and because of the trust that we have, this opens doors for me. I am also an excellent speaker of the language and this helps a lot. I've seen a lot of people with neither of these things fail miserably in data collection of both a political and non-political nature. I would recommend that you go on some sort term travel grants and do some hanging out before attempting any major data collection. Most people I know doing dissertation work in developing/authoritarian countries have at least 3+ years of in-country experience before engaging in anything major. Ethnographic research in particular requires a lot of in-country time.

- Assume anything you do will take at least twice as long as you expect. Peace Corps rule applies: if you get 3 things done in a day (even if one of them is brushing your teeth), it was a productive day.
posted by k8t at 4:18 PM on July 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

PS, I write about how authoritarian my research site is all the time. I don't think that the government is reading academic journals. YAGMMV.
posted by k8t at 4:20 PM on July 23, 2009

My sister did this two years ago, and I'll ask her about some of the more salient details. From what she's told me, though, it sounds like she had some degree of difficulty. She was on a Fulbright researching feminism in one of the more lenient Islamic governments in North Africa, and wasn't expecting any problems because they're ostensibly a democracy. (She was in Tunisia, if it matters--not typically branded as authoritarian, since they have elections every five years, but when the same candidate get 95% of the vote in five straight elections, and speaking ill of him is widely understood to be a felony, I start to question conventional definitions) Within about two weeks of her having some pretty low-key question-and-answer sessions with a handful of minor members of parliament, she was walking home one day and was pulled aside by an armed guard posted down the street from her, who asked if she had noticed that she was being tailed. It turns out, the president keeps an insanely close eye on any potential dissenters, and will make one passing attempt at incorporating them into minority government; if that fails, it's down the oubliette. She ended up revising her thesis, because she wasn't willing to risk her own safety for a few extra data-points.

I think k8t's basically got it: just be very, very careful how you couch your questions, and be ready to back off immediately if something looks like it could pose a threat to your well-being.
posted by Mayor West at 5:07 AM on July 24, 2009

I do not know about doing research, but Singapore is a country, which I'd say qualifies as authoritarian but as a foreigner you most probably never feel the authority. In addition to that the country is stable and rich enough to not care about your research or findings.
posted by oxit at 1:15 PM on July 24, 2009

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