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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Long-Dormant Campuses Begin to Stir

Long-Dormant Campuses Begin to Stir

The office of the Khmer Students and Intellectuals Association (KSIA) is a bare 16-square-meter

room furnished with a rickety wooden filing cabinet, two tables, two typewriters

and four chairs. There is no fan and the air is oppressively hot.

But the stifling atmosphere belies a resurgent political activism that is beginning

to stir on the country's campuses.

"It seems that now they have given us some air to breathe. They don't set us

free from their pocket but they don't kill us either," said Sim Vuthea, a University

of Phnom Penh student.

After years of intimidation the youth of Cambodia are trying to make their voice

heard again. They have started to exercise their rights by enthusiastically joining

political parties, human rights groups, or forming their own organizations.

Sor Chhieng, KSIA's chairman said the association's main objectives were to strengthen

solidarity among Khmer pupils, students and intellectuals regardless of their political

tendencies or race, and to enhance their patriotic conscience and ideals.

The organization is run on a shoestring budget funded by monthly contributions of

50 riel made by its 1,000 members

Chhieng said the spartan arrangements were a result of its need to maintain its independence.

"We bought the filing cabinet for 40,000 riels, but we still owe the owner half

of the amount," Chhieng said.

"We can't mix ourselves with the politicians because they have different tricks.

So, to know the truth, we have to stay outside the ring until we can make a reasonable

judgment about them."

Chhieng and Sy Vuthy, KSIA's vice chairman cited the events in early 1970 when students

were deceived into supporting the pro-American regime of Lon Nol, who launched an

anti-Vietnamese pogrom and a military coup against Prince Norodom Sihanouk. In the

unrest that followed, freedom and self-expression were lost for two decades as the

country fell under the domination of communists.

"We were and are still afraid of the political cycle, because past experiences

have taught us that the ruling powers consider anybody who operates independently

of their influence as a threat," Chhieng said, recalling the student demonstration

against the government in December 1991.

The students have little positive to say about any of the 20 political parties which

have registered to compete in the U.N.-supervised general election in May.

"Students want democracy," said 25-year-old Phnom Penh University student

Kung San, head of the Alliance of Neutral Khmer Students which groups about 300 students

from different institutes.

"Democracy is designed for peaceful talk. It is has nothing to do with the way

that the four factions bare their fangs to bite each other," he said.

KSIA members said they view all the parties' platforms as nothing other than the

selfish ambitions of politicians struggling for power.

"The words 'national reconciliation' used by political leaders in their propaganda

is aimed at gaining support from the people in order to grasp power," said Vuthy.

Students say that while the UNTAC mission has provided a chance for the democratic

seed to sprout, the country still has a long way to go.

"Like the whole nation, our students have learned very little during these two

years about principles of democracy and human rights," said Sim Vuthea, another

University student.

Vuthea represented Khmer students last month when they joined with other NGOs to

address the concern over the Khmer Rouge massacres of the Vietnamese and Cambodian


Vuthea said he was concerned that stirring up anti-Vietnamese sentiment might boomerang

on Khmers themselves, especially those who live in Kampuchea Krom (Mekong Delta).

"Violence is never appeased by violence, but it is appeased by kindness,"

he said. "We, Cambodians, should restrain our anger and forgive some, because

at the moment we still have not recovered from our wounds. We all look like amputees.

What is the point for us to lift the walking cane to beat the others?" He went

on to say however, that the friendship and solidarity between Vietnam and Cambodia

should not exceed its limits. "History has taught us that we are enemies. But

the past was a mistake," he said.

Thor Bunn Thorn, another student at the University of Phnom Penh, said he was pessimistic

that the situation will improve after the poll. He said "Once the Khmer Rouge

do not recognize the newly elected government, it is difficult to expect any changes

in the situation. The prospects for peace are gloomy," he said.

Human right experts have been encouraged by the growth of student rights groups.

"UNTAC came with the cement of democracy. Their activities will continue to

grow after UNTAC leaves," said Ms Kek Galabru, president of LICADHO (Ligue Cambodgienne

pour la Promotion et la Defense des Droits de l'Homme). LICADHO is the most active

local human rights group with 26 offices and more than 100,000 members throughout

the country. In addition to its work with women, children and the elderly it has

established close links with student organizations by assisting them to draft the

statutes of programs for action.

"Ideas come from meeting, talking. This is the base of democracy. If you have

small states in a big state, the latter will learn how to be more democratic,"

she said. In a warning to the State of Cambodia (SOC) she said "The government

will lose a lot of things if it does not want to follow the wishes of the whole nation.

Now no one can stop them (students), even SOC can't because the country is going

to be opened."

"Communism is finished," she said.



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