IT WILL be the youngest Cambodian election in history. On July 28, more than 3.5 million people between 18 and 30 years of age will have the opportunity to dip their fingers in indelible ink, cast a ballot and vote.
More than 1.5 million of them will do it for the first time, and with many of these new voters likely undecided, political parties are pulling out all the stops to capture the vital demographic.
With far different needs than their parents, however, these voters are looking beyond charismatic speeches and promises of stability.
But be they ruling party youth gyrating to blasting pop songs in central Phnom Penh or teenage garment workers eking out a living at a rural factory, “the youth” are by no means a cohesive unit.
For youngsters like Ou Ritthy, a 26-year-old political science graduate who organises informal political discussions in the capital, the election should be less about party shenanigans and more about the issues.
“Even though more youth are participating in politics these days . . . they are still blindly following [the parties],” he said.
“I want everyone around me, youths especially, to know about politics. It’s very important because we are all in the same boat, and we need to know who the rudder is.”
At Ritthy’s so-called “Politikoffee” meetings, announced via Facebook and Twitter, anywhere from a handful to several dozen young people gather at a café or public spot for lively, and often contentious, discussion.
Recently, Kem Sokha’s alleged genocide denial comments – and who believes them – were up for analysis.
“The people who live in the rural areas, for example, my father, he thinks [these claims] are true,” 27-year-old Ly Malin told the group before Ritthy interrupted and proclaimed that older Cambodians are close-minded.
Malin however, quickly bit back.
“My father is educated. It’s his personal opinion. People who are at the rural area, they think it’s true, and why [should they] not?”
For this diverse group of youngsters – a teacher, entertainment reporter and even a Ministry of Interior employee were present when the Post attended – discussion is not about parties.
“To us, we don’t discuss whether we support this party or that party, but I think people around us might think [we are opposition] because it’s quite abnormal to talk about politics in a public space,” 31-year-old teacher Chheng Channy said.
Like many young voters, the group isn’t particularly inspired by either party and say they will likely vote for the “least bad” choice.
“Older people usually have their own party . . . so it’s not easy to persuade them to change. Whereas youth voters are undecided, so they are able to make a decision [specifically] for this election,” Koul Panha, director at election monitoring organisation Comfrel, said.
According to political analyst Kem Ley, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party has the edge in youth campaigning as they have access to “existing structures”, including universities, political institutions and huge youth associations ranging from scouts on up.
Thousands of young and highly educated students have joined Hun Sen’s land titling volunteer scheme during the past year, while tens of thousands have served as members of the boy and girl scouts, Red Cross youth, and similar organisations.
While powerful, however, such institutions hardly guarantee party loyalty. Nak Piseth Pichey, a medical graduate and former Hun Sen volunteer who spent six months in the provinces measuring villagers’ land, freely admits that some volunteers used the opportunity to find a job.
The program, he noted, inherently drummed up support for the ruling party, but volunteers were never asked to vote for the CPP.
“It was out of my own heart and no one forced me to go, I wanted to help villagers . . . Yes, of course I supported this positive policy of the government…but if it did not benefit villagers, I would not volunteer.”
But whether or not youth capitalise on the subtle opportunities available in such organisations, it is clear, said Ley, that “the opposition cannot use government structures to connect with youth at all.”
Kem Monovithya, deputy director of Cambodia National Rescue Party public affairs, which runs the youth wing, said however, that her party is seeing unprecedented youth support thanks to policies on education and jobs.
“They think that the CNRP has more substance than before, and the issues we talk about now actually target young people . . . It’s actually cool now to be a CNRP youth,” she said.
Without access to youth through mainstream media or universities, Facebook and informal networks have been the biggest factor in drawing young voters to the party, she added.
“I think it’s safe to say that the CNRP has completely taken over Facebook.”
Echoing a sentiment ex-pressed by many observers, Monovithya added that youth join the CPP for “personal privilege”.
Prime Minister Hun Sen’s son, Hun Many, who heads the Union of Youth Federations of Cambodia – the CPP’s largest youth group – declined to comment for this article.
A number of calls and requests for comment from the UYFC were also declined.
Chea Chheng, 23, an active CPP member who gained notoriety on social media after leading a protest against UN human rights envoy Surya Subedi at a public lecture in May, dismissed the idea that youth join the CPP for privileges.
“As a youth supporting the CPP, I dare to say that everyone wants a bright future and wants society to progress. So if youths believe in the CPP…what the youth will get is a leader who develops the nation.”
He adds that political stability, economic growth and the protection of the monarchy are the key reasons he supports the party, adding that youths joining the CPP campaign get no more than food and water in a “spirit of sharing” at party rallies.
Although no party could be said to have “captured” the youth vote, the CNRP are likely to gain more votes from young people this election, Kem Ley said.
“But in the rural areas, the remote areas . . . the poor people will probably still vote for the CPP.”
The split between educated, Facebook-using, urban-dwelling youth and their rural counterparts is stark – at least on the surface.
A 2011 UNDP study found that just 3.4 per cent of young people nationwide were political party members.
In comparison, a 2012 National Youth Forum survey specifically targeting higher-educated youth found that 68 per cent of them were involved with political parties.
But more young people like Kert Sany, 16, an ethnic Kreung minority from Ratanakkiri province who travelled to Phnom Penh for an NGO-run citizen journalism course, are getting involved because of local issues affecting their communities.
Sany said she started to pay attention to politics when her community began having problems with economic land concessionaires, and now she brings news to older villagers who do not understand Khmer.
“I do not support any party, but I love to listen to all parties’ policies. I will wait and see whether they keep their promises after the election, and then I can decide which party is good and which party is bad,” the future voter said.
According to Chheang Sokha, president of the non-aligned Youth Resource Development Program, although youth interest in politics has surged for this election, many of whom have left their hometowns for work will be unable to return to vote.
Comfrel statistics show that logistical and registration issues were the main reasons why only 65 per cent of youths turned out to vote in the 2012 commune elections.
A political awakening?
Whether the rise in political interest necessarily means an increase in youth civic engagement, however, is another matter.
A 2010 United Nations Development Program survey commissioned by BBC Media Action found that although three-quarters of young people had heard of democracy, the same proportion of them could not say what it meant.
Of those who could, neither elections nor voting were mentioned.
An additional 60 per cent said they had never discussed political issues with anyone and 92 per cent had never voiced their opinion to a public official.
The youth who took part in that survey are likely to be part of the huge numbers of newly eligible young people allowed to vote in this election, said Colin Spurway, project director at BBC Media Action.
His organisation produced Loy 9 – a hugely popular television show aimed at 15- to 24-year-olds that pushes themes of democratic responsibility and civic engagement – directly in response to the 2010 UNDP survey.
The show, recently renewed for a third series, uses a blend of entertainment and education to reach the nearly four million young Cambodians who aren’t part of the urban class.
“We’re aiming at people who’ve spent all day since 5am in a paddy field . . . those people are not looking for a detailed representation of the constitutional council . . . they just need to know that a member of the National Assembly represents [them],” Spurway said.
While Loy 9 focuses on the “basic facts and perceptions of civic engagement” and has never mentioned any political parties, Spurway said there’s little doubt politics is considered a “dangerous” thing to be involved with.
“It is clear that the older generation generally regards it as a dangerous, dirty game and they discourage youth from getting involved.”
Sokha agrees that compared to their parents, young Cambodians born after 1979 are more willing to speak out.
“Young people are smarter in observing the policies of the political parties. They do not just listen to the way [politicians] speak . . . They don’t look at the past so much. They look at the future.”
The level of political discussion amongst young Cambodians may remain fairly limited, said Ritthy, the political science graduate. But at least it’s a start.
He cites the example of Chheng and other student protesters at Subedi’s lecture – a video of which went viral on Facebook and kicked off a storm of political discussion.
“Because of [Subedi] and the protest, a lot of youth on Facebook were very curious . . . I have never seen many youths posting videos talking about politics . . . But this time youth labourers, farmers, students, they all put up videos because of the Subedi event,” Ritthy said.
“[There is little] constructive criticism . . . but it is good that they come to this [first] stage . . .
It’s much better than before.”
But for many of Ritthy’s generation, the tired faces of decades-old political leaders are simply uninspiring.
“This is the main thing. Cambodian youth lack political icons and political idols to follow . . . It’s different than Myanmar, where you have Aung San Suu Kyi to inspire. In Cambodia, we don’t have these kinds of people – they are not inspiring.”
Additional reporting by Vong Sokkheng and May Tithara