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Cambodian Youth Becoming More Politically Engaged

  • Theara Khoun

A supporter, center, of the newly merged Cambodia National Rescue Party, holds an iPad during an election campaign on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Jul. 3, 2013.

A supporter, center, of the newly merged Cambodia National Rescue Party, holds an iPad during an election campaign on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Jul. 3, 2013.

In the past few months, an unprecedented number of Cambodians under the age of 30 have begun participating in the political process, holding rallies, volunteering and posting on social media. This could lead to positive social change, observers say. But it remains to be seen how their engagement will play out in general elections set for July 28.

Around 3.5 million of 9.5 million registered voters are between the ages of 18 and 30, according to the National Election Committee. Of those, some 1.5 million are first-time voters.

That may seem like a lot. But no one really knows how many of them will turn out to vote. Only about half of those registered in that age group took part in commune elections last year. Some were too far from their homes, some did not have enough information, and some were simply not interested.

Experts say that could change this year, pointing to a high number of volunteers as election monitors as one indicator.

About 70 percent of the 10,000 election observers for the Committee for Free and Fair Elections are under 30.

“I volunteered as an observer because I want to see a free and fair election and report any irregularities or fraud during the upcoming election,” said Leng Chhanvy, 26, who is based in Kampong Thom province.

Another volunteer, Ouk Pao, 23, said he wanted to encourage young people in his community to vote, by helping the Youth Chamber of Cambodia. He’s one of 720 youths in nine provinces volunteering to help get out the vote.

“The reason I decided to volunteer in this program is that I think youth are a driving force for positive change in society,” he said. “So I have collaborated with a few other youths in my community to educate people in various communities about the importance of the election and the necessary documents needed. After our explanations, they appeared to be a lot more active in election.”

Still, where some volunteers are engaged in the election, others interviewed by VOA Khmer said they didn’t feel the need to volunteer, though most said they would vote.

“I have not participated in any election activities so far, but I have targeted a party to vote for, so I will go to vote for that party,” Kim Seng, a 25-year-old food vendor in Phnom Penh, told VOA Khmer.

Voters like Kim Seng will have representatives from eight different parties to choose from when they go to the polls on July 28.

Cheang Sokha, executive director of the Youth Resource Development Council, said that Election Day will see a more dedicated generation, one whose members are increasingly passing election information between one another.

“They tend to share it with their circles of friends or families,” he said. “Also, they have actively participated in political campaigns for all political parties, which is quite different from previous mandates.”

Social media has helped spread some information, he said, but he noted there are still many of the younger generation living in rural areas, or in poverty, who lack resources and education.

That means lower participation, said Koul Panha, head of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections. For these youth, registering is difficult and election information is scant, he said.

Still Cheang Sokha remains confident that a greater voter turnout will take place this year.

This article originally appeared on VOA's Khmer service.

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