​Patriot Games: Inside the student movement | Phnom Penh Post

Patriot Games: Inside the student movement


Publication date
02 March 2001 | 07:00 ICT

Reporter : Lon Nara and Bill Bainbridge

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In the high risk game of Cambodian student politics, the hearts and minds of the

best and brightest are subjected to a blend of high-toned nationalistic rhetoric

about democracy, human rights and economic development bolstered by mob violence

tactics against those who disagree.

"Pagoda boys" crash an SMD protest last year against Vietnamese political influence.

The current boom in Cambodian student activism was sparked by the spontaneous and

bloody post-election street protests in the autumn of 1998. In those violent but

heady days, students, monks and citizens renewed a student movement of a scale unseen

since protests against the 1970-1975 Lon Nol regime.

Government crackdowns saw student leaders flee to Thailand and, on their return,

internal disagreements over both ideology and personality caused the original solidarity

to fragment into a bewildering array of democratic students 'movements', 'fronts'

and 'associations'.

Saro Sivutha is typical of the young and idealistic students who led the 1998 protests.

After returning from exile in Bangkok he was elected president of the Student's Movement

for Democracy (SMD)

"In Cambodia there has never been an independent voice, so we've tried to get

young people who are strong and can stay focused on boosting democracy," Sivutha

said. SMD's strategy is to remain at arms length from conventional politics and political

parties, concentrating instead on raising awareness and waging protest campaigns.

"It is very dangerous. We are followed and we are watched" says Sun Sokunmelea,

the First Deputy of the Democratic Front for Khmer Students and Intellectuals (DFKSI).

"The government is afraid that [DFKSI] will extend its power in the country".

The costs of student activism to one's academic career, says Sivutha, can be direct

and severe. Students involved with protests are regularly invited to meetings with

their faculty directors and asked to cease 'disruptive behavior' or risk losing their


But the greatest concern of SMD and DFKSI activists is the risk of violent confrontation

with the pro-government student group christened the Pagoda Children, Intelligentsia

and Student Association (PCISA). Boasting a membership of 4,000 across 27 Phnom Penh

pagodas, the PCISA has built a reputation for strong arm counter-demonstration tactics.

Since the visit of Thai Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai to Cambodia in June, 2000, the

PCISA has routinely disrupted what it perceives as anti-government demonstrations

and physically assaulted their participants.

Sokunmelea says that the PCISA's use of the term "pagoda boy" is an insult

to the long-honored traditional route of education for young men from poor families,

including such luminaries as Prime Minister Hun Sen and business tycoon Mong Reththy.

The PCISA, she says, is nothing more than a "protest-for-hire" group that

is further compromised by infiltration by plain clothes police.

Nonsense, says PCISA President Yi Mao.

"Our activities come from the hearts of members and students," the 31-year-old

medical graduate and pagoda boy leader told the Post. "Living in a democratic

country, pagoda students have a right to express their opinions and do not welcome

[activities] that will cause instability in society."

According to Mao, PCISA is apolitical and acts only "..as our conscience dictates"

to preserve order in Cambodia.

That assertion was challenged in June, 2000 by Phnom Penh Municipal Governor Chea

Sophara, who accused the PCISA of being no more than paid thugs for Minister of the

Council of Ministers Sok An and Chief of Military Intelligence Mol Roeup.

Chea Sophara is not alone in this view. In Visa Um, Secretary of State for the Ministry

of Religion and Cults, told the Post that the PCISA was a front for unnamed politicians.

"They used the 'pagoda boys' name to create an organization with political aims,"

Visa Um said.

"[The PCISA members] are poor students from the provinces. Someone must cover

their expenses."

PCISA's Yi Mao denies any allegations of links to the Government or of receiving

financial support from the CPP.

More difficult for Yi Mao to explain is a document obtained by the Post purporting

to be a PCISA report addressed to Hun Sen via Mol Roeup.

The document outlines a range of activities allegedly undertaken by the PCISA including

the claim that the group "frantically thwarted demonstrations in order to maintain

social stability". The document also makes the claim that the PCISA distributed

two petitions against Sam Rainsy's hunger strike as well as providing a list for

the expenditure of some $10,000 provided the group by Hun Sen in June 2000.

Yi Mao admits asking Hun Sen for money, but denies that any money was ever received,

and labelled the unsigned, unnumbered document a forgery.

"It is completely wrong to say that we get funds from Prime Minister Hun Sen.

I've made only one request in early 1999 for books and pencils but we got no response.

This is not illegal is it?" he said.

Mao in turn accuses the SMD of links to both the military and the Cambodian Freedom


Into this seemingly intractable morass of frequently violent student group rivalry

has entered America's International Republican Institute (IRI). The American oganization

is intent on ending the factional in-fighting and violent confrontations that currently

characterize student group relations and unify them in one single umbrella organization.

The IRI, which has links to the US Republican Party, takes the view that the divisions

in the Kingdom's student groups have been a serious obstacle for the development

of harmony within Cambodian civil society.

IRI's strategy has been to lobby the various groups to meet in a consultative forum

called the National Youth Council of Cambodia (NYCC) that will work to avoid inter-group


Yin Bin Darom of IRI's Phnom Penh office calls the nascent united student group "...a

living tool to promote democracy and accountability in Cambodia".

The IRI claims to give no money to the student movement, providing instead "diplomatic

support" to the fundraising activities of Cambodian student groups in the US

and Europe.

Under IRI tutelage the main student groups - DFKSI and SMD - have developed a distinctly

pro-US character.

Employing cold war rhetoric generally confined to the ramblings of conservative Republicans

such as Jesse Helms, they accuse Hun Sen and the older generation of CPP leaders

of retaining a "communist mindset" and of being tools for Vietnam and China.

Sokunmelea says the aim of the DFKSI, who launched their group on the first day of

the new millennium, is to "...start a new history of young Cambodia to detach

the Khmer mentality from the old mentality".

While the DFKSI has repeatedly demanded reparations from China for its role in supporting

the Khmer Rouge, they play down similar involvement by the United States. Instead,

DFKSI and SMD look to the United States as a model for Cambodian democracy.

"The United States was not as selfish or as involved [in supporting the Khmer

Rouge] as the Chinese," Sokunmelea said, overlooking the US role in ensuring

that the KR retained Cambodia's seat in the United Nations in spite of revelations

of the Cambodian genocide. "The new generation [of Cambodians] should have good

co-operation with the U.S."

SMD and DFKSI activists concede their youthful enthusiasm and inexperience, but insist

that that they are not easily bought or intimidated.

"They think we are like a crying baby; if they give us a treat we'll just stop

crying," said one SMD activist. "But they are wrong - we won't stop crying."

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