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
* 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 grassroots human
rights activists imprisoned, villagers protesting illegal land-grabbing surpressed
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 stifled 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
Center for Social Development
* The Voice of Justice column will be a regular feature of the Phnom Penh Post. Both
the column and the logo are expressions of the Center for Social Development (CSD),
which bears full responsibility for the opinions expressed. The CSD Voice of Justice
logo depicts a figure pushing aside the black curtains of a repressive past, as s/he
yearns to enter a world of freedom of expression and democracy, represented by the
blue of the inner circle. The scales of justice above the figure show the supremacy
of law, and are in gold, which according to Cambodian mythology stands for strength,
rooted in the earth. The Constitution is placed in front of the figure to represent
the protection it affords. The logo is encircled in pale blue to symbolize peace,
while the two golden naga motifs, which appear on the CSD logo, identify the Voice
of Justice as a program of CSD.