A few years ago, Meach Sithyka Jessica became the first-ever Cambodian woman to graduate from the US Military Academy at West Point, and since then her courage and determination has served as an inspiration for other Cambodian women.
Similarly, Ly Chansocheata became the first Cambodian woman to ever graduate from the National Defense Academy of Japan (NDA) with a Bachelor’s degree in International Relations, and she is now a military officer for Cambodia’s Ministry of National Defence.
With her father being a military doctor and her brother a military officer, Chansocheata was following in her family’s footsteps when she took the entrance exam at the National Defence University of Cambodia in 2015 after graduating from Chea Sim Santhormok High School.
“As a kid, I used to love playing soldier, and especially with my dad and brother serving in the military, that inspired me to join as well,” she said.
In 2017, Chansocheata passed the scholarship exam at the NDA, which made her the first Cambodian woman ever admitted to the university.
“I was in the 13th class of Cambodian students to study there, but only two Cambodian students are allowed to receive a military scholarship per group,” the 25-year-old told The Post. “And overall I was a student of the 66th graduating class at the NDA in Japan.”
Because her father went to college in Japan for two years in 2009, she became interested in Japan and learned about its history and culture and she has been studying in a Japanese school since kindergarten.
She continued to study Japanese after she arrived in Japan and even though she was a scholarship student, if she failed any courses or committed any serious disciplinary offenses she could be expelled and sent home at any time.
“Everything there is judged on pure ability alone. We lived at the school and studied at the school. Accommodations and food are free, as are uniforms, plus we received a monthly stipend for personal expenses,” she said.
Five years of discipline
Chansocheata said that the most important trait required in order to succeed at the NDA is discipline because every aspect of daily life there requires constant discipline.
“When folding your mattress you have to do it perfectly and if it isn’t perfect the commander will pull it out and make us do it again. Everything is like that. If the commander orders us to attend a meeting in five-minutes there’s no option other than making it there on time. If you’re late you will be penalised,” she said.
“Although my course of study focused on international relations, NDA requires all students to do military training as well,” she said. “Upon graduation, we receive a bachelor’s degree in an academic subject, but we also have a lot of additional military knowledge we’ve learned as well.”
“When classes are being held we train for just two hours a week but there is also a period of full-time military training we have to undergo each year.
“Full time training is from 6am to 10:30 pm. There is no free time. There is very little time for yourself or for rest. Japanese people are energetic and industrious and its normal for many people with regular careers outside of the military to never have any free time either,” she observed.
Japanese is a language that is very difficult to learn for many people and at the NDA students are required to use Japanese at an advanced level.
“To make it to graduation, we have to spend a lot of time on language. The language is the biggest challenge because we only do one year of Japanese classes at NDA when we first arrive in Japan.
“But for our coursework, we really needed two or three times that level of fluency, so without extra instruction and studying and help from Japanese people, we wouldn’t get our diplomas,” she said.
“And there are even many Japanese students who can’t handle both studying and training and drop out of school,” said Chansocheata. “It happens every year.”
First year students must complete an eight-kilometre swim in the sea, which is a difficult task for nearly anyone as it takes hours of swimming nonstop. If they attempted it without training first, most of the students would likely need to be rescued from drowning.
Instead, they gradually learn to swim long distances by building endurance and technique starting with repeated one-kilometre swims in a pool and then over time swimming one, four and finally eight kilometres in the sea.
“When we reach our goal after swimming for six hours, our struggle to overcome this challenge then becomes an achievement we take pride in and that part of it is really fun,” she said. “When we arrived on land there were teachers and parents waiting for us and we were all very happy.”
In the second year, every student has to climb the three-kilometres to the summit of Mt Fuji, hiking up the trail around the mountain starting at 4:30am in the early morning and taking until at least noon to reach the top of the mountain.
“When we reach the top at noon, the teacher gave us a signal by clapping and we had to start the return hike to the bottom immediately without any time to rest, as part of the training,” Chansocheata said. “We got back down the mountain at 5pm and at that point it had been 12 hours of constant hiking on mountainous terrain.”
“I really wanted to give up at times. In terms of our level of fitness and strength as compared to men, women have a much harder time. But you can’t give up just because you want to. That never solves anyone’s problems. And if you give up now, there’s no going back later.
“The most important thing is the image of our country. We are not just representing ourselves, we are representing Cambodia and we are representing women,” she says. “If we quit then I think Cambodia would stop sending female students and Japan would stop accepting female students from Cambodia. Quitting wasn’t an option.”
One of the most memorable experiences students have during their five-years of study in Japan at the NDA is the four-day jungle survival training that takes place in the third year.
Chansocheata says she spent four days in the jungle with a Japanese guide – shoulder to shoulder, overcoming obstacles in the cold under constantly falling rain while getting covered with leeches.
“He told me to dig the ground and I dug. He told me to do what he did, I just followed him whether he ran or walked. Four days without a bath or a bathroom and nothing at all for comfort was an intense workout. It was a very difficult time and I was actually scared. It rained forever and I had no change of clothes,” she recalled.
Preparing for graduation is also an experience that all students remember because of the week of training leading up to the formal ceremony. They had to train for two hours in the morning and two hours in the evening by doing twisting sit-ups the entire time without pause.
“During the sit-up sessions, I just kept imagining how it would feel to finally get my college degree in order to be able to keep going, but I also knew that after graduation it would be time to go home,” she said
Many women would never join the army, Chansocheata says, because they are afraid it will somehow diminish their beauty.
“To me, there’s nothing more beautiful than serving the nation and sacrificing yourself for your country. We have to ask ourselves what we have done today and whether it was just for ourselves or for our families and for our society. Was it enough? Everyone should ask themselves that every day. Then we can achieve our goals,” she said.
Chansocheata said that, as a woman, she’d like to encourage other young women to consider joining the military and discard outdated notions like military service is only a last resort for those without any other options.
“Nowadays, the military is well-trained and well-educated and many of us get to study abroad at internationally recognised schools.
“They should understand that if they join the military and if they study hard, they can go abroad to school, sometimes for free, and come back and help develop our country. This work is not just work for men alone, women can do it too,” she said.
Chansocheata noted that when someone studies in a foreign country they can get acquainted with other cultures and broaden their knowledge of the world, which allows them to better understand what makes Cambodia special, but also what needs to be improved in order for Cambodia to fully modernise.
“And it allows you to get out of your family’s home and live on your own without your parents – without needing to get married first – and you will become confident knowing that you can certainly live on our own.
“I want more Cambodian women to join the military and participate in national development by becoming guardians of peace in the Kingdom,” she said in conclusion.