I was disappointed that a journalist like John Trezise, a member of a profession
that claims to be the guardian of free speech rights, can manage only a mild "unfortunate"
when he contemplates the possibility of Cambodia's adopting an anti-free speech law
such as the anti-proselytizing law in Tamil Nadu, India ("A missionary message
of misery" Phnom Penh Post, August 13, 2004). Unfortunate? How about heavy handed?
paternalistic? an intolerable breach of human rights? Though he came short of advocating
such a law himself, he also came well short of condemning it.
Free countries like the one Trezise grew up in tolerate all kinds of nonsensical
speech, even speech that questions the very cultural foundations of those societies.
Trezise has been bombarded since childhood with written and spoken messages attacking
the core beliefs of his own dominant culture, and that of his parents and grandparents,
yet he somehow survived without government intervention. Chances are some of those
written and spoken messages led him to rethink age-old beliefs and perhaps even jettison
It is not "cultural imperialism," as he calls it, but exactly the opposite:
it is the free marketplace of ideas where paternalistic protection of the citizenry
is unnecessary, where newspapers such as the Phnom Penh Post have the freedom to
publish articles questioning traditional Khmer culture, and where the people of Cambodia
are once again taking their rightful place.
Like a lot of recent press coverage of religion, the article tended to be one-dimensional.
A more nuanced approach might have mentioned similarities and differences in the
Christian and Hindu/Buddhist doctrines of heaven and hell, perhaps noting similar
graphic depictions of hell carved into the porticos of Angkor Wat.
It might have pointed out the irony that the religious pamphlet in question was printed
by a mission agency from Japan, another majority Buddhist country, and also the fact
that many, if not most, of the foreign missionaries in Cambodia come from other Asian
A more multi-dimensional article might have compared the growth of Christianity in
Asia to the spectacular rise of Buddhism and Hinduism in Western countries from 1960
to the present, completely unhampered by anti-proselytizing laws. It might have mentioned
the fact that there are more Moslems in the United States than there are United Methodists.
It might have woven in a comment on the anti-religious speech laws recently passed
in France that make it a crime for students to wear a cross or an Islamic head scarf.
And it certainly would not have painted all mission agencies in Cambodia with the
same broad brush, as if they would all approve of the approach used in the pamphlet.
Nearly all of those in Cambodia who are sharing their religious faith with others
are Khmer citizens. Any anti-proselytizing law would muzzle the very citizens it
seeks to protect.
There are always a few in Cambodia calling for the adoption of laws limiting religious
free speech, but Cambodia's leaders have wisely opposed such a move. We should all
follow the government's example.
J D Crowley - Ratanakkiri