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The political pushback: What’s stopping us?

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"I don’t want my children involved in politics because it makes them waste their time for study and business. Moreover, it can also affect their safety. In my generation, politics were unstable and it caused weak and ordinary people to die,” said 59-year-old Yem Chak.

Looking back at the past, from when Cambodia was colonised by the French, history has been marked with bloody civil wars and politically tumultuous regimes. This history of suffering, as a result, has left Cambodians equating the political system with violence and corruption.

One doesn’t even have to look back past the Khmer Rouge regime, just over three decades ago, which brought with it the profoundly deep scars of brutal genocide.

“In the past [before the Khmer Rouge], Cambodian youth loved politics and spreading their ideas, because they loved their country and wanted to learn so much,” said HE Ros Chantraboth, an expert of Khmer history.

He added that ordinary people faced incredible danger expressing their political opinions during the regime.

Families, for this reason, hold their children back from engaging in political discussion. Although some young Cambodians might want to become political advocates, they are discouraged by their parents and made to feel insecure.

Mach Dara, a third-year student at Royal University of Phnom Penh, chooses to express his strong political opinions despite these social obstacles. However, when he discusses politics, he is often mocked by his friends and – sometimes – he says, forced to stop talking.

Bureaucracy also stands in the way of young Cambodians becoming politically involved.

Often times, if one does not have family connections in the government, it is hard to obtain a good job working in politics. Many young Cambodians born to average families believe that it’s useless to pursue a career in politics, no matter how hard working they are.

And of course, many other young Cambodians just don’t care enough to become involved – they rather stay involved in their work or studies.

Those youth who do advocate for political involvement certainly exist – but are a small bunch.

Kol Panha, Executive Director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (Comfrel), said, “Youths are the main pillar of this country, so involving them in politics is important.”

“Surely, if youths don’t get involved in politics, this will lead to danger – for example, when leaders make a decision, youths who are disengaged from politics won’t know how to respond to the situation, and they will not be able to protect their own benefits both in the present and in the future,” he said.

“For instance, if a leader makes a decision to use a natural resource, such as gold or gasoline, how will youths know whether that political party has implemented regulations to use it effectively?” he said.

HE Ros Chantraboth said that youth should join in politics to greater benefit society as a whole.

“Youths should work hard in studying and researching political theory and history,” he said. “They should observe political events, both local and international, as they will gain the knowledge they need to engage in politics and make peace.”

Kol Panha said that young Cambodians need encouragement to become politically involved.

“In order to encourage youths to get involved in politics, the Ministry of Education should include a study program about democratic politics to raise awareness,” he said. “Also, media is so important in sharing knowledge, so there should be more talk show programs on political topics.”

For this week’s Constructive Cambodian, Khin Sarong, a youth advocate for political engagement, advises that young Cambodians do their best to get involved in politics.

“It is important for Cambodian youth to join together and get involved, because it’s what our political system needs,” he said.

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