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Building bridges by the sea


Cambodian and Thai youths are set to camp for peace and friendship in Sihanoukville

A committee meeting between the two teams (ICA and TVS) takes place in March 2011 in Bangkok. Photo by: NEANG SOVATHANA

GOOGLE the words “Cambodian” and “Thai” together and the results will often be less than uplifting. “Border dispute”, “troops clash” and “ceasefire breaks down” are some of the phrases that lead you to news about conflicts between the two countries. Alternatively, pick up a newspaper and the results will be much the same; regularly dominated by reports of the two bickering governments.

Despite the often fraught relations between Cambodia and Thailand, a group of youths from the two countries is dreaming of creating good news by building peace and friendship in a cross-border dialogue named the Cambodian Thai Exchange Program.

“We want people to get into contact, talk to each other, share problems, learn each other’s language, and hopefully [by the end of the program] they will start to realise that what they have heard about each other before might not be true,” says Neang Sovathana, 24, chairwoman of the Initiatives of Change Association, which is going to co-organise the program with the Thai Volunteer Service.

After meeting twice in 2010 and 2011 in Bangkok to discuss what young people could do to foster peace and friendship, as well as develop a shared vision, the two organisations are now ready to launch their first activity, the Joint Youth Camp.

The week-long camp, which will run from November 7 to 13, will unite 40 young people, 20 from each country, who range in age from 18 to 35 years. They will live and learn together at the Picnic Resort in Sihanoukville.

The program will open with a chance for the youngsters to hang out and enjoy each other’s company in an informal setting before shifting its focus to an exercise in sharing feelings and reflections on personal problems.

“They would come to realise that they have love problems, study problems and family problems,” says Neang Sovathana, adding that the idea is to show the similarities between their predicaments, regardless of nationality. “We are all just human beings. And we have problems with our friends, boyfriends and girlfriends.”

The camp will include a variety of activities and workshops, as well as speakers who will address the 40 attendees about topics such as religion and the Khmer Rouge. Dance workshops, conflict management and team building activities will also be included in the program according to Neang Sovathana, and the youngsters will be encouraged to teach each other traditional games, songs, dances and some basic language skills.

Afterwards, homestay experiences have been arranged. They will last for one or two days and Neang Sovathana says the organisers “want people to experience what it is like to live with a family that you have always heard would hate you”.

She is also a great believer in the power of youth and hopes this program can be the first step towards disempowering the nationalism that she feels has been used for political gain.

“Young people are very active, powerful and passionate about what they do. So if they are passionate about the wrong things, then the conflicts will get even worse. If they are passionate about peace building, then the conflicts might not become rooted,” she says. 

The program is still accepting applications until August 31, with Neang Sovathana stating that open-mindedness and listening skills are among the top criteria considered when choosing applicants. An active involvement in social activities will also be a big advantage but the Initiatives of Change Association is also aiming to keep about 10 spots open for those with no prior experience in such situations and “who have no idea what it [the disputes between Cambodia and Thailand] is about and have no idea what the problems are so that they will start to care”.

When asked, as a young peace activist, what impact she expects to see from the program, Neang Sovathana is humble. “I know that it is this big an impact,” she says as she gestures with her thumb and forefinger less than an inch apart, “but it’s always better than not doing anything at all.”

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