The words of the First Amendment may be 45 of the the most important ever written. Those who doubt the value of those freedoms of religion, speech, the press, assembly and petitioning for redress of grievances might look to Asia, where I work, and where tragic things take place in the absence of an effective Bill of Rights.
In Myanmar, being a Rohingya Muslim can get you killed, as thousands have been, with the Buddhist government’s full backing. In China, the government has reserved to itself the right to disregard a 2,000-year-old tradition of reincarnation and choose the Panchen Lama, the second-highest figure in Tibetan Buddhism. It says it has the right to choose which Catholic church you can go to – not the one affiliated with Rome. In India, as the Modi-led government sinks further into Hindu extremism, “beef vigilantes” might kill you for butchering a cow.
In Singapore, insulting God on the internet, as a 16-year-old youth named Amos Yee did late last year, can get you arrested and threatened with detention in an insane asylum; Yee is now seeking political asylum in the United States.
The First Amendment protects Americans from abuses of power that are all too common in Asia. But its protections are in danger under Trump.
In Malaysia, political parties aligned with the government have a monopoly on the press through a restrictive printing and presses act; there, Steven Gan and Premesh Chandran have been charged with violation of the state securities law for publishing an interview in the independent Malaysiakini with a critic of the government.
Hong Kong, arguably Asia's freest city, is slowly being strangled by Beijing. The leaders of the 2014 Umbrella Movement to demand universal suffrage have in recent months been arrested and charged. In Malaysia, Maria Chin Abdullah, the leader of the Bersih election reform movement, has been arrested for sedition for leading marches demanding free and fair elections.
The Pearl River Delta village of Wukan in southern China rose up massively against corruption in 2011 and won rare village elections. But in 2016, police have cracked down and arrested the leaders of those protests.
In Indonesia in May, Basuki Ajahaja Purnama was defeated in the Jakarta gubernatorial election solely because he was a Chinese Christian in a largely Muslim nation. This, despite having been the most effective – and perhaps the only honest – modern governor Jakarta has ever seen.
In the United States, the First Amendment protects Americans from these kinds of abuses of power. The First Amendment keeps religion out of government and public schools and prevents politicians from retaliating against press criticism and whistle blowers. It allows demonstrators to protest. It gives you the right to practice the religion of your choice and proselytize 16 hours a day and all weekend. It does not give you the right to do it the other eight hours in a school or government building.
These protections are absolute, and are there for everybody. Unfortunately, they are also in deep danger in the United States.
President Donald Trump’s Secretary of Education, Betsy deVos, backs policies that would pump public money into religious schools via her charter school plan, a deep violation of the First Amendment.
Freedom of the press is equally under attack. This is now a country where a Montana politician can body-slam a reporter for asking a legitimate question about his views on Trump’s health plan and still win election. It is a country where the White House refers to the press as “the enemies of the people.”
The United States has fallen to 43rd of 180 nations in the Reporters Without Borders freedom of the press index – a drop the organization specifically attributes to the smear tactics of this White House. As we celebrate this Independence Day, these debasements of democracy, while depressing, are worth noting.
We have seen in Asia the underpinnings of religious dictatorship that have resulted from the lack of these critical freedoms. One fervently hopes that, in this country, it won’t come to that.
John Berthelsen recently retired as editor of the Hong Kong-based Asia Sentinel. He divides his time between Sacramento and Asia, and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.