Since he was a university student, Ou Ritthy has been an advocate for qualities that Cambodian politics generally lack – in his own words, “dialogue, political debate, policy debate and tolerance”.
Seven years ago, Ritthy founded Politikoffee, a popular political discussion group that has established itself as the premier venue to discuss and debate Cambodia’s political situation.
Now he is hoping that his newest program, a professional mentorship platform called Sour Mouy that Ritthy launched last month, will enjoy similar success.
Sour Mouy, which roughly translates to “ask a question”, is a website that connects young people with mentors who can guide them through the process of choosing a university major, applying for a scholarship to study abroad or starting a new job.
“It is a platform where I can connect youth with people in the city, rural areas, and even abroad,” Ritthy said. “Anyone can register as a member. You go to the website and choose a mentor, and then you can ask questions.”
The site already has more than 100 members, and its mentors include professors, NGO officers and industry leaders.
It’s a change of focus for Ritthy, but he insists that political and professional development are really two sides of the same coin, with both necessary for Cambodia’s future.
“I am equally interested in youth in politics and youth in entrepreneurship,” he said. “[Sour Mouy] has the same intention as Politikoffee, which is to develop youth. The difference is only in content.”
Ritthy is widely admired among the group of politically inclined Cambodian youth who regularly attend Politkoffee. He founded the group in 2011 and was a central figure in the early years of the program.
In recent years he stepped back from the project, allowing Politikoffee’s 12 core members to organise events and discussions, and enabling Ritthy to pursue personal projects, as well as an education abroad.
He left for summer courses in Thailand in July 2016, and a month later flew to the Netherlands to participate in a one-year Master’s program.
But the Cambodia that Ritthy left in 2016 was a different country than the one he returned to in September last year.
Several days after his departure, his friend and popular political analyst Kem Ley was assassinated in a Phnom Penh petrol station while drinking his morning coffee. Ritthy was devastated.
“We lost a treasure of the nation,” he said, “a rare intellectual who has a very good head and heart . . . I did not have a chance to say goodbye.”
Unable to return for Ley’s funeral, Ritthy shaved his head, a mourning ritual traditionally reserved for when a close family member dies.
Ritthy’s work with Politkoffee had for years centred on creating a group where young people could gather to discuss and debate politics openly and freely. But the public murder of a vocal political analyst, who had only days before gone on the radio to talk about a report critical of the wealth amassed by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s family, was the beginning of a new wave of political and media repression in Cambodia.
For a little more than a year, as Ritthy watched from abroad, the government tightened the screws on independent and opposition voices. He returned home on September 3, 2017, the same day that then-CNRP president Kem Sokha was arrested on charges of treason.
After arriving home, he immediately got to work hashing out the details of Sour Mouy, and a month later, in October, he hired a young web developer who was studying at a local university to design a website for his platform.
Ritthy insisted that his decision to focus on a business-oriented platform was not related to the political situation, but rather because the country “needs both political entrepreneurs and business entrepreneurs in order to build Cambodia in the future”.
After investing about $500 of his own money into the project, Ritthy built a sleek website with pages that feature pictures and short biographies of mentors and an easy-to-use registration page for mentees. There is no charge for participating.
The design and construction process took about four months, and in February, Ritthy pitched the project to Pech Pisey, the director of programs at Transparency International, who approved $15,000 in funding for the platform.
“Youth empowerment is one of TI Cambodia’s key strategic priorities,” Pisey told The Post in an email last week. “Sour Mouy’s objective is well in line with our objective to increase youth civic participation and empower them in the decision making process affecting their lives.”
Pisey also had high praise for Ritthy personally, noting he had a “brilliant mind” and expressing hope that his project would help build up skills for Cambodia’s youth.
“Building a new generation of leaders with skills and high integrity is fundamental to the future of Cambodia,” he said. “We are hopeful Sour Mouy will empower hundreds of youth to make meaningful and informed decisions about their lives, and make use of their potential for their own future and the future of Cambodia.”
Pisey is also a mentor on the site, as is Ritthy, who said he designed the platform knowing that his mentors were busy people and needed flexibility. The site allows mentors to list available times to chat to make things easier for them, but complications can still pop up.
“One mentee booked me because he was going to have a scholarship [interview] at Pannasastra University,” Ritthy said of his first mentorship call. “At that time, I was on the toilet. So I answered, on the toilet, and gave the mentoring.”
His bathroom guidance session worked and the student, Hong Sochea, ended up getting the scholarship to study human rights law.
“He gave me very helpful advice,” Sochea said in an email. “It was a big help . . . I would recommend Sour Mouy to my friends so they will receive the benefit like me.”
It’s those kinds of interactions that Ritthy hopes will proliferate as the platform grows. Right now, he is in the process of travelling to different provinces to teach students outside of Phnom Penh about the program, and in the future he hopes to transform the project into an NGO or registered company to ensure it can survive without external funding.
Even with his past success, Ritthy admitted he was surprised at the rapid growth of Sour Mouy, noting that 100 users – more than half of them mentors – in less than a month of soft launch was “quite a lot”.
He has balanced his work on the platform with his full-time consulting job, and he travels to provinces and pitches mentors to join the platform during his evenings and weekends.
When asked why he decided to take on such a big project, Ritthy paused for a moment before answering.
“There is a nice quote that says, ‘A good leader creates more leaders,’” he said. “I don’t know who said it, but it really inspires me.”