ONE of the most significant trends of the 1980s may turn out to be the movement of millions of human beings into the ranks of greater freedom. Freedom is an astonishingly durable quality which is somehow cherished even in the hearts of those who have never known it.
Indonesia, in the 1960s, is a good example. For 20 years Indonesia had lain stifled under the heavy hand of President Sukarno. Yet it was the teen-age students who led the charge to topple him -- students who had been born in a closed society and never known freedom, but who somehow understood it was there for the grasping.
That flight toward freedom is just as instinctive today. Refugees from oppression know where its flame burns most brightly. There are no lines outside Soviet embassies waiting to emigrate to Moscow. Nobody is clawing his way over the Berlin Wall from West to East. It is to the United States, and Western Europe, and their fellow democracies that the repressed turn.
So it is not surprising that governments are bending under these pressures and that a string of countries are moving from the ranks of dictatorship to freedom, or at least to looser systems resembling it.
In Europe we have seen the emergence of Spain and Portugal.
China's redefinition of Marxism is a move to bestow greater economic liberty, if not political, on its people. It is reflected in greater individuality in dress and appearance. Both in the city and on the farm, the shoots of private enterprise are poking their way up through the overlay of state control.
But the real success story is Latin America. Brazil, that dynamic giant, has just held its first free election in two decades. Argentina has put behind it its long dark night under brutal military rule. Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and Uruguay have all moved from military to civilian rule in recent years. Venezuela stands out and there has been progress in Honduras and El Salvador. Even little Grenada, which came close to being a Marxist satrapy of Moscow and Havana, is proudly democratic again.
Of course, there are some countries where progress is zero. For the most part they are countries that are satellites of the Soviet Union: Poland, Afghanistan, Cuba, Nicaragua, Kampuchea. In Western ranks, South Africa's repressive apartheid policy is an embarrassment, but there are stirrings in the regime which, if not at this stage offering grounds for hope, nevertheless warrant close observation.
Although the Reagan administration has been criticized for insensitivity to human rights abuse, the fact is that through American foreign policy under various administrations there has been threaded a bipartisan concern for the well-being of peoples abroad. Sometimes raising this issue has worked to the detriment of American relationships with a particular government. But it is part of this intrinsic American desire that other peoples should enjoy the same freedom and opportunity as exists in democracies. It is unselfish, and often rather moving.
Now the Reagan administration must press the human rights issue with a couple of important allies. One is South Korea, the other the Philippines.
Korea is under the Communist gun. Not long ago, North Korea tried to wipe out the entire South Korean Cabinet visiting Rangoon, Burma. The Communists succeeded in killing a number of South Korean ministers. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union ruthlessly destroyed, with major loss of innocent life, a South Korean airliner that strayed into Soviet airspace.
Like Korea, the Philippines must also deal with Communist insurgents who would dearly love to overthrow the existing regime. But also like Korea, the Philippines has a legitimate political opposition which seeks by orthodox means to oust the incumbent autocrats.
As the grip of President Marcos weakens in the Philippines, democracy is gaining steam. There is progress in South Korea, too, but it has been overshadowed by the botched handling by the Seoul government of the return of opposition leader Kim Dae Jung.
Some critics urge that President Reagan should cancel South Korean President Chun's visit to Washington in April. That is not good advice. What the United States must do is not alienate these regimes that have shown some inclination toward democratic movement, but nudge them to greater progress.