Justine Drennan talks about her job on Foreign Policy magazine and her work as a reporter in Cambodia where she covered the Khmer Rouge tribunal.
When Justine Drennan arrived in Phnom Penh, she had little experience of journalism. Her time at Cambridge where she did a master’s in international relations had, however, given her a good understanding of international organisations – something that came in handy in a city which has the second largest number of NGOs per capita in the world.
One and a half years later, she had experience of reporting on post-election violence and the Khmer Rouge trials.
She has now just started a post at the prestigious Foreign Policy magazine, where, among other things, she writes regular blogs and has been able to draw on her history and international relations background and her experience in Cambodia.
Justine  showed an early interest in world affairs, but the only way it could manifest itself at school was in history lessons. Her writing was encouraged from a young age due to a non-traditional early education.
Born in San Francisco, she attended a Montessori-style school and then a Chinese American school, which she later taught at during the summer vacations before and after she started college. Her maternal grandparents moved to the US from China and her parents thought it was important that Justine had some sense of her heritage. She had classes in English in the morning and in Mandarin in the afternoon. Students were encouraged to focus on what they wanted to do. Justine learnt about Chinese culture and did a lot of creative writing and art. The school was small with children of all ages sharing the same room. Justine was the only girl in her year.
She won a scholarship to high school which was the first time she had been in a more traditional school setting rather than a fairly unstructured learning environment. The experience deepened her already keen interest in history.
Both her parents are doctors, but she never felt any pressure to follow in their footsteps. Indeed they actively encouraged her interest in writing. However, in her reporting career she has done a fair number of health stories. “I feel like hearing my parents talk about health from an early age helped get some public health terms and concepts in my head,” she says.
Justine chose to study history at Princeton in part because it was on the east coast and she wanted to travel. There she also was able to take social sciences classes such as sociology and psychology and did a minor in visual arts. History, however, united a lot of her interests and gave her a good background in world events which would prove useful in her journalism work. By her second year she knew she wanted to do journalism after she graduated and spent the summer doing an internship at New America Media, a media organisation focusing on multiethnic news and marginalised communities. She liked the organisation’s focus on undercovered topics and groups and applied that approach to her studies at Princeton. In a department where most offerings focused on US and European history, she tried to choose classes that were “as modern and non western as possible”.
She took classes in Latin American and Asian history and her final-year thesis focused on Irish and Chinese railroad workers who built the first transnational US railroad, but had been the focus of little academic attention. Justine sought and won funding to travel the entire route of the railway, stopping in railroad museums and archives along the way.
She did a statistical analysis of the names of workers on the payroll to see how many were Irish or Chinese, when they might have immigrated and what their economic background might be. She then tried to piece all this information together to form a narrative of individual workers’ lives. The research took around a month and she has recently been contacted by researchers at Stanford who are doing a project on Chinese railroad workers which she may collaborate on.
When she finished Princeton, Justine was encouraged to continue her studies by seeking out international relations courses which she felt would act as a bridge between history and journalism. She was also keen to head abroad. She researched the Princeton in Asia programme which places recent graduates in NGOs and media organisations in Asia, but chose to do her masters in international relations first. She says this was a good decision as the course prepared her well by teaching her how international organisations work. During her time at Princeton she had spent half a year at Oxford so was drawn to the Oxbridge system and applied to Cambridge. She liked the fact that there were many mid-career students on the course whose professional experiences she could learn from. Also the programme was fairly history based – and the Gates Cambridge Scholarship played a big role in her decision with its emphasis on internationalism and multi-disciplinarity.
Justine’s thesis was on the Uyghurs in Xinjiang province. Her interest was sparked by a family visit to Kashgar on the border with Central Asia. The city used to be a stop on the Silk Road and while Justine was writing her thesis the historical part of the city was being virtually demolished by the Chinese government. She was interested to explore the implications of this for Uyghur history and for ethnic tensions in the region. She says: “Underlying these actions was the idea that the Han ethnicity is synonymous with development and modernity whereas the Uyghur culture is more traditional. This idea subtly floats under the surface and is a useful lens for analysing where Chinese policy is going wrong. Because it is not blatant it is more insidious and more attention should be devoted to it. The rhetoric sets the terms of the debate.”
When she finished her MPhil, Justine reapplied to the Princeton in Asia programme and was assigned a position as a reporter on the Phnom Penh Post in Cambodia. She was eager to live somewhere which was completely different to the US. Once she arrived, she faced a steep learning curve as she tackled daily reporting on a newspaper while a newcomer to the country. She says there are a lot of international organisations in Phnom Penh because so much needs to be rebuilt, including the basic infrastructure of the country. Cultural traditions, kept alive abroad, are being revived. However, the political atmosphere often hinders the rebuilding process. For instance, many of the senior members of the current government were in the Khmer Rouge and put hurdles in the way of the Khmer Rouge tribunal, which Justine covered on a daily basis.
She describes a fragile political atmosphere. “Former Khmer Rouge cadres live alongside their victims. Everyone knows who these people are, but not everyone can be punished- nor should they be, necessarily. It’s a disturbing situation,” she says. “At the tribunal there was a lot of vagueness about who did what. Also, the Cambodian population is so young. More than half are under 30. The majority were not alive during the Khmer Rouge. There’s a huge legacy of that time and a lot of people with post traumatic stress disorder, including second generation post traumatic stress disorder passed down by parents, but a lot of people only know what is happening now or what their parents tell them.”
Justine stayed in Cambodia for a year and a half, but went home after her initial stint on the Phnom Penh Post before returning on an Overseas Press Club Foundation scholarship for young journalists to intern with the Associated Press. Initially she was posted in Thailand, but due to the violence following the 2013 general election in Cambodia and her knowledge of Cambodia she was sent back to Phnom Penh where the streets were barricaded and military police were firing tear gas. “I felt like I had returned to a completely different scene from less than a month earlier,” she says.
She returned to the US when the political situation calmed down because she wanted to expand her focus so she could make connections with events happening in other parts of the world. She got an internship at The Nation, fact checking articles, web producing and doing some writing for the website. Recently she has taken up a fellowship at Foreign Policy magazine in Washington. It involves fact checking and web production, but also blogging where she can talk about broader academic issues. She likes the ability to explore issues in depth, drawing on her experience in South East Asia and her history background, but for a wider audience than she would reach in academe. For now journalism brings together all her interests and skills.
*Justine is pictured at Beng Mealea, a ruined temple in Cambodia’s Siem Reap province.