At the start of an event at a local university last Saturday, the audience was warned against publishing comments by the speakers without their permission.
“We want people to feel comfortable to share their ideas,” the moderator explained.
Such is a measure of the fear that grips Cambodia’s populace in the wake of occasional arrests on trumped-up charges for online criticism of the government. Also of concern is the violent restraint of street protests in the last few years, though not of late.
While maintaining that young people — that is, the small minority of college and university students in the country — “are aware of their security risk” for speaking out, one presenter allowed that he “wouldn’t say that they are afraid.” He added, “They are more pragmatic than risk averse with regard to saying what they want.”
I didn’t seek permission to use that quote or any others at the two-hour session, but I respect the participants’ right of privacy and their concern about being held accountable for what they utter. Obviously, I don’t want them to be thrown into jail, though I imagine that the authorities would view their comments on Saturday as harmless.
At Pannasastra University, which had two deans welcoming a crowd that approached 100, the event was titled “The Rise of Facebook and Youth Voice in Cambodia.” It was hosted by Politikoffee, which was organized six years ago by Ou Rithy, an India-educated Cambodian who describes himself as “passionate about economic development, politics, democracy, environment, human rights, and international affairs.” Members meet weekly, and Saturday’s session was more ambitious than usual.
Between the lines of the group’s stated interests, it is possible to read a desire to reform a government headed by a prime minister in power for the last 32 years. Politikoffee is necessarily circumspect in the following statement on its Website:
We are young enthusiastic and tech-savvy Khmer youth who deeply care about Cambodia.
We love discussing socioeconomic, political developments and democratization in our country and the region. We are eager to learn, to test ideas, to challenge and be challenged. We speak our mind.
We believe in fostering a culture of dialogue to help make Cambodia better.
We encourage dialogue that values thinking critically and debating respectfully, as a stepping stone to our personal development and society’s.
With this in mind, Politikoffee creates platforms for youth debate and discussion on political and other important issues.
The genocide of the 70s resulted in the death of up to some 2 million Cambodians, causing a void only now being filled by the current generation of young people. Educating them is widely believed to be the hope for the future.
Of the nation’s 3.4 million Facebook users, 80 percent were said to be of ages 18-34. “That is where youth lives now,” a presenter said about the site, observing that they pay little attention to television and that they don’t act collectively but spontaneously. In other words, their individual comments on Facebook add up to political influence — for example, by complaining about a new law on driver licenses and having the requirement abandoned within two days as a result.
“Social media in itself can influence political decision-making,” the presenter continued. “Facebooking is Cambodian youths’ everyday politics without them even knowing,”
Someone said the growth of participation in social media was “profound” in just the last three years with the subject matter moving from little more than food to politics, gender roles, social issues and economic development. He described their involvement as self-motivated, not from nongovernmental or other organizations.
“Youths are taking the initiative themselves,” he maintained.
It was convincingly reported during the event that Facebook posts not only demonstrate the younger generation’s growing awareness of the nation’s issues today but also raise the possibility of their effecting change in the face of threats renewed last week of being killed for taking part in a color revolution.
“Facebook is a place to find your community,” said one of the speakers, noting that debate occurs there under the protection of various privacy settings. “Facebook is a way to start the conversation.”
Buttressing evidence of the younger generation’s desire to be involved in politics has been an enormous increase in registrations and voting by citizens between 18 and 34 years old. A percentage of 93.4 registered in 2013 and 70 percent actually voted. This year, it was reported that the percentage of voting by that demographic may have reached 90.
Young people are still cautious about what they are saying online, according to one of the presenters, adding that longtime oppression becomes “like a fire in your soul” and that speaking out is better than doing nothing. “They have to be more open,” she maintained.
I sense that more of them will be increasingly more open. When and whether their openness will amount to anything remains to be seen.