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
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.