This article is published to mark the upgrade of this blog to a new domain.
By Kimkong Heng
There is hope.
On the night of 27 June 2020, I had a few simultaneous chats on Facebook Messenger with some Cambodian youths who have concerns over the future of Cambodia, its democratic development, and COVID-19 situation. They reached out to me because I have published some short opinion articles that have attached their interests. These chats and others I had in the recent past have been refreshing and empowering. These ongoing Facebook interactions show one thing: Hope.
Over the last few years, I have been trying to write opinion pieces instead of focusing on writing journal articles – something I should prioritise – given my role as a doctoral student and my inspiration to be a researcher. So far, I have published around 70 opinion pieces in both local and international outlets and in both Khmer and English languages. I have a few other opinion articles already submitted, pending acceptance decision or publication. I am also writing a couple of other pieces I hope to finish in a few days’ time.
All the opinion pieces I have written are based on my informed opinion, understanding, and research. However, when it comes to opinions, they are not only my opinion. They represent the views of other Cambodian youth, both young and old, with whom I have interacted over the years, either through a face-to-face medium or via social media and other online platforms. These individual young Cambodians are often those who do not have the will, capacity, or confidence to express their concerns. Some are simply in fear of putting themselves in trouble if they voice their concerns in public or have no confidence in offering their written work for public judgment.
As I aspire to be a researcher, I keep hoping that my writing will continue to convey messages from Cambodian youth with whom I have interacted to Cambodian leaders, political elites, policymakers, staunch government supporters, opposition party activists and supporters, government critics, and individuals refusing to think critically or unwilling to do so.
More importantly, through my writing and engagement on Facebook as an act of activism, I aim to inspire Cambodian youth who are the future of Cambodia and the powerful political and development force as they make up about two-thirds of Cambodian’s population. I desire to shape their understanding, perceptions, fantasy, and so on. I am of the belief that, while some Cambodian youth are politically engaged, others are living in dreams, believing in the status quo, tolerating social problems facing them and thinking it is a primordial reality in which they are living. They seem to believe, I argue, it is the reality that cannot be changed quickly. The reality that has existed over a generation or more. The reality that cannot be denied, challenged, and/or altered. Some of them simply accept and reinforce the reality.
Cambodian youth are a key actor in shaping the Cambodian society and reality.
In all likelihood, many Cambodian youth may, knowingly or unknowingly, help to perpetuate, strengthen and buttress such a reality. Put another way, they are a key actor in shaping the Cambodian society and reality – the reality that has rooted in the mind of many Cambodians, some of whom may be hopeless and accept every aspect of life they are leading.
The lack of agency, courage, and visible activism in some, if not many, youth is understandable yet concerning. Their perceptions and attitudes are shaped and reinforced by their own fear and that of their parents, relatives, and people around them, many of whom are the victim of the Khmer Rouge regime. Thus, given their relative lack of agency and activism influenced by a culture of obedience to seniors and authority, stories from the older generation of Cambodians, and their own understanding and perception, each help to construct, confirm, and conserve the reality, even such reality may not be in the best interest of them and their country. Put in a different way, each appears to contribute to cementing the status quo and the perceived reality, believing that it is the best they can have under the current personal, professional, and social circumstances.
There is hope or an optimistic expectation that Cambodian youth, the backbone of Cambodia, has crucial roles to play in effecting change and bringing about positive developments in their country.
However, as stated in the first line of this piece, there is hope or an optimistic expectation that Cambodian youth, the backbone of Cambodia, has crucial roles to play in effecting change and bringing about positive developments in their country. Some analysts argue that Cambodian youth could become “key actors in halting the country’s democratic backsliding”. They can be considered as a key actor shaping the Cambodian society and reality.
As I have previously argued with regard to Cambodia-Vietnam relations and Cambodia-Thailand relations, Cambodian youth have a pivotal role to play to shape and enhance Cambodia’s relations with Vietnam and Thailand, Cambodia’s immediate neighbors and traditional enemies.
In addition to learning and understanding their own history, developing positive mindsets, and transforming themselves into global citizens, Cambodian youth must seek to reconcile and improve their country’s relations with its immediate neighbours. Despite strained relations in the past and the possibility of such sour relations being re-emerged in the future, there is hope that new Cambodian generations can put their anti-Thai and anti-Vietnamese sentiments aside and instead focus on improving their own knowledge and skills to stay relevant and competitive in the near and mid-term future.
My recent and frequent correspondence and interactions with some of the Cambodian youth are promising and worthy of mentioning, albeit in an anonymous way. For example, some have reached out to me to express their approval of the arguments I put in my op-ed articles. Some said it is refreshing to read critical pieces and arguments that are not written to praise the Cambodian government. Several of them went on to express their concerns over the future of Cambodia and how this country can and should move forward in a more democratic, progressive, inclusive and sustainable manner.
Even more encouraging, others have reached out to share their ideas or projects to improve the image of Cambodia in the regional and international arena. A few are collaborating with me on different projects to improve some key aspects of Cambodian society relevant to our research interests and expertise.
These brief personal anecdotes serve as a testimony of hope. It is the hope that Cambodian youth, despite the seeming lack of agency and activism among some, if not many, will foster change and drive development in the Cambodian society. They are key players in constructing and reconstructing the Cambodian reality and society in ways that will be in the interest of themselves, their communities, and the country.
It important to understand that Cambodian society faces a generation gap in thinking, beliefs, and attitudes. Bridging this gap is difficult and perhaps the only remedy is time.
Moving forward, as many young Cambodians, including those born after the collapse of the Khmer Rouge regime in 1979, may have perspectives and mental frameworks that are not necessarily in line with those who have gone through the atrocities of the genocidal regime, it important to understand that Cambodian society faces a generation gap in thinking, beliefs, and attitudes. Bridging this gap is difficult and perhaps the only remedy is time.
One way forward for Cambodian youth as the future captains of the Cambodian ship is to try to engage in activities that aim to develop knowledge, skills, creative and critical thinking, digital literacies, cultural awareness, communication, and collaboration.
When Cambodian youth are empowered by the possession of all these knowledge and skills, they will become competent change agents and key social actors who can shape, transform, and improve the Cambodian society and reality.
They are the hope for Cambodia’s future.
Kimkong Heng is a PhD candidate in the School of Education at the University of Queensland in Australia and a Visiting Senior Fellow at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace. He is a co-founder of the Cambodian Education Forum and a recipient of the Australia Awards Scholarship. All views expressed are his own.