"WE want free and fair elections. We want a ceasefire. We support democracy
and human rights - but what can we do?"
This is the kind of question being discussed by a group of young student leaders
from the University of Phnom Penh. Too afraid to air their views on-campus - "people
listen to us, remember our face, maybe make trouble for us when we go home"
- this group of earnest young men meets in the evenings at the home of Funcinpec
MP Om Radsady to discuss campus and national politics.
The students, who asked that they not be identified, note that their university elections
may mirror this year's schedled national elections.
A tall, lanky young man smiles shyly from under an unruly forelock and says that
the Cambodian People's Party has successfully courted the loyalty of student leaders
in all the faculties. "They give the students things, like financial support
"I am running for the president [of his faculty's student association] but I
don't think I will win," adds the student, who drives a moto taxi in the mornings
before classes to support himself. "My opponent is CPP, they may give money
to get the votes."
Asked if this reminds them of the recent alleged vote-buying for the NGO seat on
the National Election Commission, the students respond vehemently.
"Yes! Ha, maybe you will be like Dr Lao Mong Hay," one says to his friend,
referring to the loser in the NGO-seat poll.
They say they are not optimistic that national elections will be fair. "If a
little thing [the NGO vote-buying] is bad like this, the whole big thing can be bad
as well," says a calm young man in an natty white shirt.
"Before [July's fighting], we analyzed each political party and chose the best."
Now, he continues, the students are afraid not to do what the CPP "encourages"
them to do.
"The CPP gave money, they wanted the students to write a letter of complaint
about the King giving the [unconditional] amnesty [to Prince Ranariddh]... Some did
write the letter, but 90 percent disagree."
The students do what the CPP tells them not just because of the money, but because
they fear reprisals from powerful places. They claim that Phnom Penh first deputy
governor Chea Sophara is heavily involved in the student political scene.
"It's worse since July. We cannot enjoy our rights; everywhere we must be careful,"
a quiet youth offers.
Om Radsady, who serves as an informal mentor to the group, has always taken an interest
in young people since he was a teacher and a Funcinpec youth leader. "Now I
continue to keep contact with young people, try to promote the rights of youth, rights
of association, rights of expression," he says.
Radsady also encourages the students to ponder Cambodian society and the breakdown
of moral values. The students agree among themselves that too many people are not
kind to each other, lack respect for each other, and are driven by greed and power.
The natty student remarks: "We can try to live better, to improve ourselves..."
"...but we would like to see the leaders do this too," interrupts the quiet
one with uncharacteristic fervor. Then he giggles in embarrassment over what he's
So the debate continues on how to improve Cambodia's situation. But for now, it seems,
all these young democrats can do is talk.