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Talking about his generation

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Heng Chivoan

Mak Sarath at his desk. He says corruption, especially within the education system, is a problem for young people. They don't like it, but they have to pay up, or miss out on education and jobs.

Awell-spoken scholar of Khmer literature, Mak Sarath is hardly the picture of an

angry young man. Nor is he a brash Young Turk anxious to rail against the status

quo.

But he is serious; and as head of the Youth Council of Cambodia (YCC), Sarath has

a firm grasp on what Cambodia's young people are seeking from their country - and

he's eager to sit down and start talking about his generation.

"Frankly, we think the government ignores the voices of young people. We feel

like they don't listen at all. We want three things: better education, health care

and jobs," said Sarath, whose YCC is a non-partisan NGO representing a coalition

of five youth organizations.

"My father's generation lived in fear of genocide and poverty. Now he's happy

to stay in his village and look after his coconut trees," said Sarath, a native

of Kampot. "But my generation is taking over and we want to study and know everything

about the outside world. We don't want to listen to Hun Sen on the radio every night.

We don't want to be a frog in a well."

Calling Cambodia a "young country" is a demographic understatement. According

to the most recent census, 70 percent of Cambodia's 13.4 million citizens are under

the age of 30, and 52 percent are under 18.

According to the World Bank, roughly 300,000 Cambodians are added to the workforce

each year, and an election monitoring group claims there are more than 250,000 new

eligible voters annually. There is a growing push from social analysts, donor countries

and activists for the government to accommodate, and facilitate, the new generation's

emergence as a social movement and a political force.

"I'm impressed [with the youth of Cambodia]. They have new demands and greater

expectations," US Ambassador Joseph Mussomeli told the Post on October 18. "They

won't be satisfied with a bag of rice. They want a dynamic economy and health care.

They're more educated and more daring. Education makes you unruly, and that's a good

thing.

"I think this generation will create a bigger sea change in society than the

Sixties generation did in the States."

Sarath agrees that the young generation is increasingly aware of national issues,

and no longer willing to remain silent.

"I have been working with young people since 1992. Young people are becoming

more active from day to day, from mandate to mandate. Some people say young people

are passive, but I don't agree," Sarath said. "Young people know what's

going on. We know there is corruption everywhere and political interference everywhere,

but the ways to speak out on this are limited because the government blocks it."

Sarath said that young Cambodians, including recent college graduates, are gravely

concerned about finding employment. He disputes the government's figures on joblessness,

and refers to a 2005 report by NGO YouthStar that reads "an official at the

Ministry of Education estimates that only one out of nine university graduates finds

employment." The Economic Institute of Cambodia estimates that the country's

economic growth generates between 20,000 to 30,000 new jobs each year.

"The government says unemployment is under 4 percent, but I can tell you that

many, many young people don't have jobs," Sarath said. "I don't know how

the government defines unemployment, but when there are so many people without jobs

speaking to me every day - well, that's how I define it."

According to Sarath, corruption, specifically in the education system, is another

concern of today's youth.

"Frankly, we don't like corruption or corrupt people - but we have no way to

avoid it: we'll miss school or jobs if we don't pay a price," he said. "I

don't want to be involved, but you need to pay a price for everything."

Lux Mean, assistant program director for the International Republican Institute (IRI),

said his organization was been working closely with, and funding, the YCC since 2002.

The YCC is also funded by USAID, Global Fund and the Stockholm-based LSU.

"Cambodian youth see how their peers live in other countries and are determined

to catch up. These youth have a completely new set of dreams and expectations than

their elders," Mean said in an e-mail. "They are educated politically,

and can distinguish between proposed strategies and unrealistic promises. Political

parties will need to better explain their programming goals, and more importantly,

how they expect to achieve them, than they have done so far."

Mussomeli says the demographic shift is so significant it will force all political

parties to change.

"If the parties don't evolve and expand their outlook, the consequences will

be dire domestically and internationally. It's not enough to build a bridge here

and there, they need to become more modern," Mussomeli said. "The country

cannot keep living in the Sixties and Seventies. Thailand, Vietnam and China are

pulling further ahead and people don't want to be left behind."

Sarath maintains that the YCC is not affiliated with any political parties, but he

is realistic about the workings of government. He said the CPP will "automatically"

win the 2008 National Elections, and that the ruling party must evolve to incorporate

the demands of the youth movement as it enters the "Fourth Mandate." According

to Mean, in 2003, the three main political parties incorporated the YCC's youth platform

into their youth agendas, but not much action has been taken since.

"The CPP uses every policy to control young people," he said. "The

CPP is powerful because they use government institutions in schools. They have school

movements and scout programs that they say are for the government, but we think it's

the CPP. The CPP is stronger than the government."

Sarath isn't interested in revolution, he says he just wants the voice of youth to

be heard.

"Our work is not designed to expel or push out Hun Sen; we would just like him

to change his policies and listen to the youth," he said. "I am proud to

be a young Cambodian, but I am upset about my country's corruption, injustice and

unemployment - so try to work with us."

Chum Kosal, personal adviser to Hun Sen, said young people, especially the rural

poor, should look at the accomplishments of the CPP regime.

"I don't know what their political trends are, but I think that young people

will support the policies of Samdech Hun Sen because many of them are poor students

and under the support of Samdech Hun Sen they have access to schools and accommodation

for free," Kosal told the Post.

The president of the CPP's youth wing, the Youth Association of Cambodia, who requested

that his name not be used, said the CPP is aware of youth issues.

"Youth is like a rose that everyone wants to get," he said. "The CPP

has its own youth working group which is under the responsibility of the party's

standing committee. I can't make any evaluations about what political parties can

do to lure the youth to their party, but I think the human resource of youth is very

important and is at the core of national development."

Opposition leader Sam Rainsy, head of the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP), had an optimistic

view of the potential generation effect in voting demographics.

"Your grandfather supported Funcinpec, your father voted for the CPP, and the

young people will vote for the SRP," Rainsy said.

Most recently, the YCC has publicly denounced the draft law on military conscription

under debate at the National Assembly. The YCC also produces a weekly radio program

dedicated to principles of democracy and community involvement. Sarath said the YCC

has been very effective at addressing drug problems and gangsters in rural communities.

"The YCC built an active network of volunteers in nearly 500 communes and trained

over 100,000 youth through a program called "Living Democracy" for youth

aged 18 to 25. The YCC youth network circulated thousands of signatures for youth

petitions to local authorities to address community issues," said the IRI's

Mean.

The YCC, which requires its members to be between 18 and 35, consists of the Khmer

Youth Association, Khmer Students Association, Khmer Democratic Youth Association,

Cultural Environmental Preservation Association and the Student Movement for Democracy.

Each organization appoints a delegate to the board of the YCC. Sarath was elected

by the board in 2001.

At 32, Sarath has just three years of eligibility left at YCC. But he has already

ruled out pursuing a career in politics.

"I don't like politicians," he said.

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