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How one Monitor friend shook a country

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CSM 15 MAR 2020

Since Chol Duang returned to South Sudan from the U.S., there had been questions. What did you learn in America? Are you a spy?

Chol Duang had a powerful idea. And that is exactly what frightened his government and forced him into exile.

Last summer, this column introduced Monitor readers to Mr. Duang. The journalist from South Sudan had come to Monitor headquarters in Boston as part of his participation in the Mandela Washington Fellowship. Looking around at his colleagues, he said the program brought “the best of Africa” to the United States. And in return, he said, he would bring the best of the United States back to Africa.

“There are so many things to take home and to apply,” he said.

That was when the trouble started.

In a free society, Mr. Duang’s ideas upon returning home might have seemed unremarkable. He wanted to create a news show in which tea sellers and cabdrivers – ordinary folks – could have a frank conversation with politicians and power brokers.

But the government already had an eye on him. Since his return from the U.S., there had been questions – perhaps from joking co-workers at first, but then accompanied by plainclothes police knocking on his door. What did you learn in America? Are you a spy?

When Mr. Duang was no longer willing to toe the government line – simply spouting talking points as he once did – the scrutiny grew. The time in the U.S. “has given me the opportunity to think about what my role is and what my contribution should be in the country. Not just allowing lies or things that are not true going by under your watch,” he told our Africa writer, Ryan Lenora Brown, when she reached out to him recently. 

As intelligence agencies ramped up their interest in Mr. Duang, family members started fearing for his life. “If these guys get you without public knowledge, who knows what could happen to you,” he said.

The launch of the television program – which received support from the U.S. Embassy – drew renewed suspicion. Then a Facebook post critiquing government policy led to threatening calls. Now, Mr. Duang has fled the country and remains in exile.

Why should a television program put a man’s life in danger? As Ryan told me, “His story speaks to how powerful – and therefore dangerous – elevating the stories of ‘ordinary’ people can be to those in power.”

Mr. Duang says he does not regret coming to America.

“There is an accusation … against me that I’m becoming more radical after returning from the U.S. Maybe I was given a new worldview, and that I’m becoming more radical and behaving in a way that is leading me to question the way they think.”

To authoritarian governments, that mental transformation is arguably more dangerous than any arsenal. Mr. Duang’s life is proof of how even the merest hint of transformation exposes the corroded motives that free societies fight the world over and in themselves. Adds Ryan, “It’s a good reminder of why we do what we do, and why even telling stories about people who aren’t big names is essential for a society to breathe.”

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