Soeung Sophat is a graduate student of international peace studies at the University of Notre Dame. He watched carefully as President Barrack Obama spoke to his university earlier this month, in what has become a well-publicized appearance thanks to the abortion debate and interruptions of protesters.
Soeung Sophat spoke to VOA Khmer both before and after the speech.
“I think that what he raised is important for the application of democracy as well as conflict resolution,” Soeung Sophat said of Obama. “In general, parties have different views on certain issues. The important thing is to create the opportunity for discussion and dialogue so that we can find common ground.”
Before Obama’s speech to his graduating class, Soeung Sophat told VOA Khmer that Notre Dame represented a large Catholic community in the US, and therefore there would be a lot of opposition to a pro-abortion stance.
He explained the debate between pro-life, which favors the life of an unborn fetus, and pro-choice, which favors options for pregnant women, such as abortion.
“Pro-life is a fundamental moral principle of Catholics,” he said, citing a 2004 decision by Catholic bishops.
As a student, Soeung Sophat said he was interested in freedom of expression and the decentralization of government, such as the US’s federal, state and local authorities. He was also interested in the possibilities for conflict resolution within a democracy, he said.
“That’s what our country should learn,” he said. “We usually use violence to solve problems. In order to solve problems non-violently, first we need independent institutions acceptable to all parties, and we all must hold to the ideas that we can solve problems together non-violently. Obama’s appearance encourages debate about the differences, especially the abortion issue. I expect to learn how they deal with it.”
Obama’s Notre Dame appearance thrust the new president into the abortion debate. During the speech the president challenged notions of conflict resolution by saying that there may in fact be intractable differences between the two camps.
Following that speech, Soeung Sophat described the appearance of less than 50 demonstrators, including 38 people who sneaked onto campus and were arrested. A low-flying plane dropped anti-abortion banners before the university created a “no-fly” zone, he said.
“During his speech, there were interruptions from four people shouting out,” he said. “Someone shouted out, ‘Stop killing our children! How can problems be solved while you allow people to kill our children?’ Then students booed back and shouted out, ‘Yes, we can.’ His 30-minute speech focused on the disagreements over abortion, the identity of the University of Notre Dame, the American people’s beliefs, both Catholic and non-Catholic. He said that when we don’t agree on a particular issue, we need to seek common ground and start from there.”
To Soeung Sophat, the president raised important questions about the application of democracy and conflict resolution, saying that, in general, parties usually have different views on certain issues.
“I was lucky to be an eye-witness to United States president and to how he dealt with this issue,” Soeung Sophat said. “It was interesting to see the president’s reaction to those who opposed him. He said he agreed that they have their reasons to oppose. In this sense, I think they have a culture of debate. At the family, community and national levels, they have a tradition of discussion and debate based on reasoning, to solve complicated problems.
“Freedom of expression and debate has been rooted in their society for a long time,” he said. “I think in our country, we have not yet had a culture of non-violent solution to problems. We have not yet had the culture of debate and discussion based on reason, because everyone sticks to his views, and they sometimes use violence to oppose opponents without listening to their reasons and views. A culture of debate and non-violent conflict resolution can be created through an education system, which educates a younger generation to use non-violent solutions to problems.”