Nowadays, it is common to find students who are obedient and unwilling to engage in public protests. It may have been surprising to many people when a large group of medical students protested in front of the University of Health and Sciences demanding fair play from their school.
However, for old timers in the Kingdom, it probably didn’t seem strange at all. In the past Cambodia has had an active youth population engaged in politics and social activism.
This was the scene on Cambodia’s streets 30 years ago: Thousands of students were marching to request the government take action on issues such as inflation and political rights.
“Students led most of the protests while they shouted for social change. Student activism has been going on since the French Colonial era,” said Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Independent Teachers Association.
“All the protests came from students who were strong nationalists. They would take action when there was a border problem with neighbouring countries or an increase in inflation. But now students don’t have this kind of nationalism. They think about themselves because they were educated in a new way, to only satisfy themselves.”
The fear of speaking out probably comes largely from a large protest in 1998, where many students were injured and some people were killed. Now parents are hesitant to let their children engage in this sort of activity.
It is believed that a good country will never have a protest. A protest is something people do to give the government ideas to reconsider their decision or search for justice.
Cambodia’s first formal organisation for student activists was founded in 1998 when the Democratic Front of Khmer Students and Intellectuals (DFKS) was created to provide a platform for students to share their concerns with the government.
Sar Longdeth, the leader of the DFKS, said that the movement was established to raise students’ voices on any big issue facing the country. It was active on issues involving border disputes with Vietnam, human rights and democracy in the Kingdom. The group, which was largely composed of university students, staged public protests to encourage the government to rethink their measures and reflect on what decisions they had made.
Beginning in 1998, Sar Longdeth said that the DFKS did many things for the improvement of society. The largest and most memorable protest was staged in front of the Royal Palace and Olympic market, during which monks and students gathered to ask the government to hold new elections.
However, due to the lack of resources and funding, the DFKS halted its activities in 2007. But Sar Longdeth said that the group is waiting for sponsors and will be back up and running soon.
“We have not stopped. We are just waiting for help to get started once again,” Sar Longdeth said.
In recent years, other associations have started to rise up, engaging students in politics to try to influence decision makers.
Tang Molinic, the leader of protestors at the University of Health and Science, said that leading a protest is not an easy task for a student like him.
After the school told him he could not continue his studies, he and other students continued their protests, which were covered by journalists and discouraged by government officials.
“My parents always told me to stop because it was dangerous to do this, but I stuck with this because I just wanted to find justice for myself. I think doing a protest in our country is very hard to do.”
He added that due to limits on freedom of expression and freedom of demonstration in public places, many students and citizens find it hard to be active and to get involved by contributing their voice to the development of the country.
But everyone does not agree about the importance of public protests. Eng Limheng, a leader of the Student Association of the Royal University of Law and Economics, said his group limits its activities to having students talk about their studies. Protesting is not on their agenda.
“We are now satisfied with what we have, so there should not be any more protests,” he said.
Recently, there has been concern from human rights organisations over freedom of speech and expression in Cambodia, where students are expected to be passive about political issues, but for Ou Virak, president of Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, students should see political issues as their problem as well.
“Of course it is dangerous for students to protest, so we do not see any big protests on political issues. So we don’t know how much the student voice might impact political decisions,” Ou Virak said.
A law was passed earlier this year to limit the scope of protests by relegating rallies to a“freedom park”, which is to be finished in June this year and will accommodate around 200 people. A proposal for the protest must be submitted to authorities five days in advance, and they have the right to reject it if they don’t want it to happen.
Ou Virak added that this law is still quite unclear, but would prevent students or anyone who wants to bring together a large group to present a united voice. However, he admits that it still allows for a certain level of freedom of speech.