Sitting in a humble work space in Phnom Penh’s Tuol Tompoung II is Ky Veasna – his youthful looks, dyed auburn hair and smart-casual attire may fool you into assuming his junior status in the office.

But at the tender age of 25, Veasna is president of the Asean Youth Leaders Association – Cambodia (AYLA – Cambodia), an organisation he established to fulfil his vision of seeing young people in Cambodian develop the capacity, knowledge and technical skills to become the Kingdom’s future leaders.

Veasna was inspired when he witnessed young people experiencing the same problems he encountered growing up – things like not having clear goals, or being unsure of what field to study and where to build personal capacity to meet the demands of the labour market.

Born in 1994 as the second of three children to a school teacher father and a mother who sold school supplies, Veasna recalls his love for playing football as a boy, but says he was far from a high achiever in school.

“My life was like many other kids. When I studied at primary school, I wasn’t an outstanding student.”

Things turned around when Veasna was ranked third in a monthly evaluation in his class one year. At that point he realised the good feeling he could get from studying hard and he started to find his own confidence in becoming the top student in class.

In 2006, Veasna went to Tuol Tompoung High School where he further embraced his studies while continuing to help his parents.

“Besides becoming an outstanding student during high school, I always helped my mother’s business and my friends when they ask me for help with lessons. It made me very happy because I believed I was doing the right thing,” he says.

After he graduated from high school, he ditched his field of interest and decided to follow his father’s wishes.

“In 2011, I wanted to study agriculture after I graduated from high school, but my father thought learning agriculture is not good. Therefore, I got a full scholarship to study English Literature at Puthisastra University and another full scholarship to study Hospitality and Tourism Management at UC University,” he says.

His studies could have lead him to the lucrative hospitality and tourism jobs, but he chose to work in civil society sector after witnessing many irresponsible and exploitative business practices in Cambodia.

Consequently, Veasna dedicated his post-studies years to working for a local NGO where he was coordinating projects on Non-Formal Education, sexual reproductive health and violence against children and women. He also regularly volunteered to talk at different events about youth engagement in volunteerism, water and sanitation, migration and sustainable development goals.

“During my work and volunteer experience, I engaged across public, private and civil society sectors. I found NGO environment more harmonious, transparent and freer for me to grow my career,” he says.

Veasna established AYLA – Cambodia in 2015 and officially registered it in 2017 at the Ministry of Interior, with the goal of helping Cambodian youth build their goals and confidence.

Veasna was inspired when he witnessed young people experiencing the same problems he encountered growing up – things like not having clear goals, or being unsure of what field to study and where to build personal capacity to meet the demands of the labour market. Photo supplied

“There were three things that inspired me to start AYLA – Cambodia. First, I realised that young people had a limited voice in development and even in civil society. I happened to find myself the only young person in many NGO meetings."

“Secondly, when I participated in many programmes in Asean countries, I learnt that there was a lower number of Cambodian youth participants than other Asean countries’ participants. Finally, I found myself happy working with young people and believe that young people are fundamental to development. If we empower young people correctly, they are going to lead and empower their community for positive change,” he says.

Veasna believed that in order to enhance capacity of young people in NGOs, he needed to empower them in rural and urban areas of Cambodia by helping them realise their goals and build their capacity to fulfil it.

“Cambodian youth have three problems. First, they don’t know what they should have as a goal. They find it a difficult decision and don’t know how to build it themselves. Secondly, while they’re studying, they have to find work to support themselves, with this factor often hindering their potential growth. Thirdly, in the competitive labour market in Cambodia, young people have limited capacity, lack experience and are afraid,” he says.

To remedy this, the organisation works with Cambodian youths and wants to inspire them by sharing experience, knowledge and building their ability and making them clear about their role in society. The organisation now has 60 members across nine provinces.

Most of the members are younger than 25 and their projects promote participation among young people in the areas of human rights, democracy, health, gender equality, education and vocational training in Cambodia.

“AYLA works on the topics of migration and human trafficking in cooperation with Winrock International, funded by USAID,” Veasna says, adding that in the area of water and sanitation, the organisation has worked with Water Aid to make a documentary and raise awareness.

However, most of AYLA – Cambodia’s projects came to an end last year, with the organisation now facing financial challenges. Veasna has reached out for donations on GoFundMe.

“One special point that other organisations don’t pay attention to is the voice of youth in Cambodia, so we must find a partner and funder to continue our mission,” he says.

AYLA – Cambodia is located on Street 450, Tuol Tompoung II in Phnom Penh. It can be reached by telephone (85517874274 or 85586663153) and email ([email protected]).