Saturday, December 26, 2009

Let Freedom Ring in 2010

This article was written f0r the approaching new year of 2007, but it is still relevant three years on. I heartily agree that the four freedoms are apt expressions for a new year's resolution.

Saturday, December 26, 2009
KI Media
"National New Year Resolution: Upholding the Four Freedoms"

First published in January 2007 (reprinted in January 2008) in The Phnom Penh Post and Khmer translation in Koh Santepheap, as part of the Voice of Justice columns. Rather than progressing, Cambodia is regressing on these four freedoms, most notably with the re-stripping of parliamentary immunity of the political opposition leader and the crackdown on democracy and human rights activists. As we pray for the safety of those unjustly arrested in Svay Rieng, let us be reminded of Gandhi's words: "An unjust law is itself a species of violence. Arrest for its breach is more so." Another, "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win." And also, "Freedom is never dear at any price. It is the breath of life. What would a man not pay for living?" The lessons we learned from the American civil rights movement which resulted in Barak Obama becoming president are summed up by Martin Luther King, Jr., "Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed." Now, more than ever, we need to be reminded and uphold these four freedoms here in oppressed Cambodia.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations reminds us that whoever we are - rich or poor, farmers or city dwellers, white or black, male or female, Buddhist or Christian, Khmer or Vietnamese or African or American or French - whoever, it doesn't matter - each of us innately yearns for the freedom of expression, the freedom of belief, the freedom from fear and the freedom from want These four freedoms encapsulate what it means to be fundamentally human and express the highest aspirations of the common person throughout all ages. These four freedoms form the cornerstone of a democracy and are fundamental to social development, whatever level of progress of that society or nation.

We are starting a new year and at a time like this, it is instructive to reflect and re-commit ourselves to fundamentals, beginning with the upholding of these four freedoms. In the ten months that I have been at the helm of the Center for Social Development (CSD), I have witnessed that these four freedoms are not yet sufficiently present in current Cambodian society as reflected in the persistent angst of the common Cambodian.

• Freedom of Expression In 2006, we have witnessed our fundamental freedom to express our thoughts, desires, opinions and ideas curbed and suppressed, sometimes violently, sometimes through ill-constructed laws. We witnessed grass-roots human rights activists imprisoned, villagers protesting illegal land-grabbing suppressed violently, garment workers killed or wounded. We were aghast that members of the National Assembly should vote to limit their own ability to debate ideas (or as more memorably put by US Ambassador Joseph A Mussomeli, ''castrate themselves") and thus downgrade the quality of their duties and responsibilities. And as we go into 2007, our freedom to expression continues to be fundamentally inhibited by the criminalizing of defamation.

• Freedom of Belief This freedom to believe according to the dictates of one's conscience exists but is limited by the lack of other freedoms. Currently in Cambodia, it is true a Khmer is free to believe (in law and in practice) in whatever religion, whatever political party, whatever ideas. However, this freedom of belief is meaningless if this belief cannot be expressed or if this belief is inhibited by fear,

• Freedom from Fear Fear is the worst enemy of freedom. Fear robs a person of opportunities. Fear oppresses. Fear inhibits. In Cambodia, fear thickly pervades the air and consumes the hearts and minds of Khmers. It can be said a culture of fear rules Cambodia and Cambodians. To a large degree, Aung San Suu Kyi is correct in her observation that it is not power that corrupts but fear.

Courage is the only response to fear. As with any other disposition, courage is only fixed in us through practice. As Aristotle notes in the Nicomachean Ethics almost 2,400 years ago, we become brave only by doing brave acts: "By being habituated to despise things that are terrible and to stand our ground against them we become brave, and it is when we have become so that we shall be most able to stand our ground against them." Moreover, when we encounter obstacles, let us be reminded that they are only invitations to courage. Fear destroys a person's spirit whereas courage builds a person and in turn society, and encourages other freedoms. In this New Year, let us now resolve to be more courageous; let us not be stilled by fear

• Freedom from Want Poverty is living in want; poverty deprives a Cambodian of dignity, opportunities and human potential I believe one of the greatest crimes is to deprive a person of her human potential Here, I grieve the loss of human potential on a monumental scale.

Most Cambodians live in poverty, many of them in abject poverty. According to a UNDP estimate for 2006, one in three (approximately 4.7 million) Cambodians live on less than 2000 Riels (50 cents) a day.

The necessary but not sufficient first steps toward combating poverty must include quality education for Cambodians. We know that the Cambodian education system is in crisis. Corruption pervades. Teachers are woefully underpaid a non-livable wage of US$30 a month and are tasked with educating an average of 55 students per class with woefully inadequate teaching materials. What does it say about political will and generally about our society when we have a high school teacher who is surprised to learn that are different time zones, that when it is 9 a.m. in Cambodia, it is not like this all over the world? This is analogous to thinking that the world is flat; it was acceptable to do so in 1492 but not in 2007,

Hence, let us as a nation make a New Year resolution to the protection and upholding of these four freedoms: freedom of expression, freedom of belief, freedom from fear and freedom from want. They are the highest aspirations of the common Cambodian.

Theary C Seng

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