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  • Gayle Certeza

On freedom

A Khmer Moment

When I was working in Cambodia as a Creative Director in a small local agency, I had a team which consisted of young Khmers. Aside from making sure we created the best creative work we could, part of my job was to train them. So on top of work, I talked to them about a range of topics. They loved talking to me because they wanted to practice their English on me. In my two years in Phnom Penh, my team spoke better English and I spoke pidgin Khmer.

In one of the lulls during our production work (video rendering in the early 2000s was a painstaking process) we got talking. I guess the young team was curious about me as I landed in their company with all the energy of an eager adventurer with a husband and two young kids in tow.

We were completing the production of a rap song in time for the launch of a product. The launch was supposed to be a concert and a fun run but the events team was having a tough time getting a permit. I expressed my surprise at the difficulty and remarked that in the Philippines, as long as you had all the requirements, permits were easy to get. In fact, you could even get a permit for a protest.

The young art director asked, “What’s a protest?”

By way of explanation I told him about being a student activist. How we walked from the university to the city center, carrying placards and banners, shouting and sometimes singing about our causes. The causes were varied: sovereignty, equality or disagreement over particular laws.

He then asked me, “So what do you do after you protest?”

Nonchalantly I replied, “Well, we usually go malling after. Watch a movie, eat out.”

“That’s it?” He was skeptical.

I laughed and I said, “Yes, that’s it. Then we do it again.”

A Myanmar Moment

In 2006 we went to Bagan in Myanmar, one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen.

On our last day, my husband and I went pasalubong shopping. As I was looking at the souvenirs in one store, the owner spoke to me. He asked me where I came from. I told him I was from the Philippines. We made small talk. Right before I left, he whispered a tentative question: “Is it true that in your country you can protest?” I told him, yes and that I have joined protests since I was in college. I wanted to tell him more but he shook his head and asked me to be quiet. I understood. I paid for the souvenirs and bade him goodbye.

A Moment at Home

This happened when I was in first year high school, I was walking from my school which was Mindanao State University in Gensan going towards the plaza where the tricycle stands were. I passed by the stage and I saw a group of people singing and shouting. The emotions ranged from anger to despair. I got curious. I stopped and watched them. When I got up close, I saw grown men crying. They were shouting, singing and openly weeping.

When I got home the adults were all talking. My grandmother was crying. There was an energy in the air that was difficult to miss. It was years later when I learned and understood the context of these incidents. The moment that precipitated these emotions and the revolution that happened after was the assassination of Ninoy Aquino.

It was only when I studied in the University of the Philippines that I began to piece these things together. In high school I memorized historical facts and current events. I began to see the big picture when I entered the university. As a country, we were not always free. We were under Spanish rule for more than 300 hundred years. By the bravery and blood of our heroes we repelled the Spanish, the Americans and the Japanese and became a sovereign nation.

After two decades as a democratic country, President Marcos declared Martial Law and stayed as the president for 21 long years. In 1986, an unprecedented peaceful protest toppled his dictatorship and democracy was restored.

And this return to freedom is so precious.

Our neighbors are not so lucky. Cambodia has been under the rule of one leader for 35 years now. Thailand is under military rule. And any unfavorable commentary on their monarch is meted out with decades of imprisonment. In Myanmar, the peaceful protests against military takeover of their government were met with unrelenting violence. Since last year, hundreds of protesters, some as young as 14 years old, have died. As I write this today, Russia invaded Ukraine, a free and democratic country.

I read the Gulag Archipelago of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn when I was in college. One quote struck me and stayed with me since then. A line filled with Solzhenitsyn’s regret. “We did not love freedom enough.”

Since then, I have tried my best to love freedom by finding the courage to speak out, to support causes and to be present in the streets when needed. All for peace and freedom — for me, my kids and my community. And for the young Khmer, the unknown Burmese shopkeeper and all peace-loving people of the world, some may not be as free as we are.

1 Comment

Feb 27, 2022

It seems to me that the word "freedom" is often thrown around quite senselessly, without acknowledgement that it comes with responsibilities, too, especially in countries where our freedoms are taken for granted. You have put a necessary spotlight on places and times when those freedoms needed to be fought for. Well done! ~ Cisca

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