In late July of 2013, something remarkable happened in Cambodia. For the first time since the Cambodia People’s Party (CPP) came to power in 1997, an opposition group posed a real threat in the national elections. If victorious, many hoped the challenger—the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP)—would shepherd in a new era of freedom and democracy.
Although the CPP was ultimately declared the winner— leading to protests and allegations of electoral fraud— the election signaled a turning point in the populace’s willingness to raise their voices and cast their votes for change, despite the real risk of reprisals. Among those who turned out to vote were a large number of Cambodian youth involved with a key AJWS grantee: Youth Resource Development Program (YRDP).
Nurturing the Next Generation of Leaders
Founded in 1992, YRDP empowers university students to exercise their civil and political rights for the good of their country. The group has worked with 40,000 youth from 20 of Cambodia’s 24 provinces, training them to think for themselves, gain confidence in public speaking, and solve problems in their communities.
Newly trained YRDP youth put their skills and knowledge into practice by implementing social change projects. For example, Sophon Chau and 19 of her YRDP peers helped five communities in Hang village successfully advocate for a system granting village councils greater influence in local government at the commune level. “We are like the bridge to connect the local government and the local people,” she says. In a country where people are still reticent to approach authorities, this bridge can transform village life.
Another YRDP member worked to reduce domestic violence in rural areas. Her project appears to have had a marked impact in at least one village: “Some community women told me that the domestic violence in their community decreased when this project started.”
On an individual level, YRDP members say that they have gained greater awareness of social issues and a feeling of responsibility to help address those issues. One young man spoke passionately about his project to ensure that the Cambodian populace benefits from the oil discovered offshore: “A natural resource is not someone’s property, but it belongs to everyone. I am a Cambodian, so I have to accept my responsibility to do this work.”
Cambodian Youth Take a Stand for Democracy
YRDP youth took their community activism to the next level in 2013, when they played a major role in the historic National Assembly elections and their aftermath. YRDP members and alumni exercised their right to vote in droves, served as election observers, and joined and staged peaceful demonstrations when the ruling party was re-elected despite strong indications of electoral irregularities.
When security forces violently cracked down on protestors in early January 2014, many of these young people bravely stepped in to assist the injured. When police arbitrarily arrested 23 activists and the government banned gatherings of more than 10 people, they organized groups of hundreds to come together to peacefully assert their rights. Their spirit and resolve were palpable: one YRDP youth told AJWS that “When I came to Freedom Park [to protest], I felt amazing. People came there to demand their rights and I wanted to be a part of that.”
The 2013 elections and their aftermath revealed that Cambodian youth have the potential to notably influence the future of their country. Says one YRDP member, “I still feel optimistic, because when I asked people why [they demonstrated after the elections], they didn’t say it was for the political parties. They said it was to claim their rights for the whole nation.”
Carolyn Ziv is a Communications Officer for Human Rights and Story Development at AJWS.