In this discussion on youth, education, and Cambodia’s future, topics in vogue today, I would like to introduce some brief theoretical concepts about perceptions and reality; follow with what some regular Cambodians (whom I have not met) write; and examine some observations and survey results by several organizations. My purpose is to provoke discussion about the present situation in Cambodia.

Perception and Reality
Our unique political socialization; the information we’ve acquired; our cognition, experiences, values and beliefs acquired from different sources, do influence our perceptions and cause us to evaluate the same experiences differently from one another.

From childhood to adulthood and to the end of our lives, we never stop learning. As a child we learn from our parents and those dearest to us. As we go to school, we learn from our teachers and from books. As we grow up, friends and peers, and our surrounding, influence our behavior. I never understood what my father meant when he told me endlessly as I was growing up, “Live with cow, sleep like cow. Live with parrot, sleep like parrot.” In college, I learned that political socialization shapes and molds our characters.

Our values and beliefs are learned. The newspaper we choose to read, the magazines on our coffee tables, the books we read and television shows we watch; the job we hold; the special events we encounter, all contribute to molding our personality. Some of us are unconscious of our learning.

Two quotes I like: “Learning without thought is labor lost,” said Chinese teacher Confucius (551 BC-479 BC); and American futurist Alvin Toffler’s assertion that the “illiterate” of the 21st century will be “those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

To learn is to think. But all thinking is not of the same quality. An opinion – which changes from occasion to occasion – is not a thought based on careful observation, reflection, and analysis. It’s not what we know but the quality of our thinking that determines the quality of what we do, and the quality of our life. Thought leaders urge us to think objectively, positively, creatively, and critically, and to never stop intellectual inquiries, because our future depends on it.

Lord Gautama Buddha taught 2,500 years ago, “We are what we think … With our thoughts, we make the world.” Statistically, 95 percent of Cambodians claim affiliation with the Buddhist faith. Buddha’s teaching should be natural for Cambodians. Is it?

Recall some psychological experiments that revealed “one in three persons” follow what the majority claim, even if these persons believe the claim is incorrect. Generally, one laughs with the group even without understanding what the laughter is about, and one changes one’s stand if it is unpopular with the crowd. That’s frightening, but coincidental with the Cambodian aphorism, “Thveu doch ke doch aeng,” or “do like others do.”

Although genes we inherit from our parents do shape our attitudes and behavior powerfully – apples don’t fall far from the tree – I believe our attitudes and behavior are influenced more by our long term socialization, which begins since birth and ends only in death.

To people who belittle Confucius’s words, “You cannot open a book without learning something,” is Confucius’s answer: “Surrender yourself to self-chosen ignorance.”

Perceptions conflict
There are two types of reality. One is tangible: roads, bridges, buildings. The other is what we perceive as real: these are opinions based on our perception and analysis. It’s quantitative versus qualitative.

Last month, a Cambodian expatriate on regular visit to Cambodia circulated an e-mail: “I am in Cambodia now. A lot of Khmer youths have no guidance.” He alleged the government’s half-hearted effort on television to “promote democracy” is less attractive to Khmer youth drawn more to advertisements on “beer, beer, and more beer; and then whiskey, whiskey, and more whiskey”; after alcohol, the youth go for “hard cheap drugs … such as YA BA, and then heroin.” The expatriate called on Cambodians “anywhere around the world to return to Cambodia to help reduce the pain of the Khmer youth who have lost their soul without realizing it.”

Some university students in Phnom Penh who saw the e-mail, admitted to the alcohol advertisements on TV, but criticized the blanket statements about Khmer youth.

Also last month, another e-mail was sent by another expatriate, after “the first visit since my birth in refugee camp” at the Khmer-Thai border. He said he had just returned from Cambodia where he traveled the countryside and “reached out” to the poor. “I was sad and shocked to see their overwhelming poverty and despair. They have to deal with their miserable life without [care] from the current Cambodian leaders.”

He charged, the “new settlers” [read, Vietnamese immigrants] in Cambodia enjoy “better life and advantages” than the poor Khmers; his e-mail appealed to Cambodians to forget their political affiliation for the moment to unite to “save our people and our country before it is too late.”

Within the same month, an e-mail from a reader, a manufacturing coordinator who lives on America’s West Coast, landed in my box. I never met him. He described himself as “a Killing Field survivor in the US since 1985” who has visited Cambodia three times, the last trip some six months ago.

“From my personal observations, Cambodia is better today than she [has ever been]: more children attend schools, infrastructures are modernized.” He described his travels to border provinces, where roads are built, and power lines are up: “Travel which took me more than half day in 2007, now takes me only 2 hours; that is progress.”

“I am proud to be Cambodian today than I have ever been,” he wrote. He criticized the US that he said “never cared much about Cambodia and her people”; the US “realized China’s influence in the region, especially Cambodia,” only recently.

The e-mails bring to mind results from a survey of Cambodians by the International Republican Institute (related to the US Republican Party), released in January 2011 that showed 23 percent of respondents believe Cambodia is headed in the wrong direction – citing corruption, joblessness, poverty, inflation – while 76 percent are satisfied with the direction Cambodia is headed – citing infrastructure improvements such as roads, bridges, buildings, schools, health clinics.

Another Perspective
Ironically, it was also in July that a different kind of e-mail reached my box from Cambodia from a young Khmer, an Internet reader of my columns – I called him Sambath for his security. He is a Bachelor’s degree holder in political science from a foreign country. He used to write in his e-mails while he was in school that “the education of political culture and socialization of Cambodians is necessary to bring change.”

He had been silent for some time, until last month. He graduated, has returned to his home village in Cambodia’s northwest, has been helping his 74-year-old grandmother and his parents plant rice, and lived in a pagoda when he visited Phnom Penh.

“Life is hard for the poor,” he wrote. He described farming as “hopeless” because of the lack of fertilizers; he was surprised there are “twin” vegetables at many markets – grown by Khmer (more expensive) or imported from Thailand or Vietnam (less expensive). In the northwest, he found ginger, onion, sweet chili pepper imported from Thailand. In Phnom Penh, at Tuk Laak, he found meat and other products from Vietnam; one kilo of Khmer ginger costs 12,000 riels ($3), a kilo of Vietnamese ginger costs, 7,000 riels ($1.6), making Vietnamese vegetables more popular. He lamented how Khmer growers can ever support themselves.

“Many people talk more about Vietnamese immigrants flooding into Cambodia than about Vietnamese products flowing freely into the country and becoming much sought after as they are cheaper than Khmer products,” he wrote and expressed concerns over what this alone can do the state of the Khmer economy, Cambodians’ welfare, and the future.

Sambath was matter-of-fact. He claimed most people in his village are “indebted to Micro finance institutions”; they sell their land, cows and buffaloes to the better privileged Vietnamese immigrants; and sadly, many use the money for “gambling, alcohol, new phone, motorbike.” Many villagers engaged in “A Pao’ng” and card games; many young people are “now good at drinking; to pure palm juice they add ‘kduoch’ poisonous herb to make the drink strong.”

He hypothesized perhaps poverty and low education, have led to “poor morality of teenagers and adults, and people become selfish.” He was sad to see “many old people” left to work in the fields while many teenagers and adults left for Thailand for work, and females leave Cambodia for Malaysia.

Sambath’s father is an elementary school teacher whose monthly salary is about “$80 to feed 7 children.” His uncle has a son, now in grade three. The child cannot read even the alphabet. Sambath claims that students now copy exam answers from each other, buy exam questions in grades 9-12, bribe examiners to pass exams, and can buy a high school diploma for $400-500. A young man from a wealthy family in Phnom Penh, who never finished high school, ordered a high school diploma and a grade sheet to enter a university abroad to study computer science.

“We do understand very well many developments are only for the rich as the poor are struggling,” he asserted. Yes, there are more buildings, Sambath admitted, “but one year after construction, some buildings like my old schools, and most national roads … go broken in some parts because they were constructed or built not according to standard.”

Sambath said to connect for power to the Chinese hydropower dam at Kravanh Mountain, his family must spend $150-200 for connection service and an additional 3,000 riels per kilowatt hour of electricity – money his parents don’t have. So, there stands the dam, and there live most villagers without electricity.

“Let me assure you that many Cambodians I talked to in the capital and the rural areas do understand the hardships they faced, the hardships that don’t have to be, but they are not brave enough to talk publicly,” Sambath wrote.

“I do believe one day, with a brave and honest person leading the fight for freedom, Cambodians will wake up!!” Sambath expressed sorrows that the most popular democratic opposition leaders, Sam Rainsy, Kem Sokha, and Kem Veasna, who espouse the same democratic principles, whose political goals are similar, are not only unable to unite to oppose the same enemy but fall into their enemy’s trap of “divide and rule” tactics by “colorfully” accusing each other. Worse still, he said, they divide the people, prospective voters, into three different parties!

The Future
Youth is the future of a country. And the future is built upon what young people are doing today. Tomorrow must take care of itself. People usually look at yesterday to explain today’s happenings. Some even get stuck in the past and neglect to use today to prepare for tomorrow. I am never tired of repeating Lord Buddha’s words, “Each morning we are born again. What we do today is what matters most.” The future begins today.

Readers may recall the recent release by Wikileaks of 777 diplomatic cables from the US Embassy in Phnom Penh. Among the cables released online last month was Ambassador Carol Rodley’s “Cambodia’s Burgeoning Youth Population Increasingly Seduced by the ‘Perfect High’,” dated 2009, about a “recent uptick in drug use,” ice or methamphetamine “preferred by Cambodia’s urban elite.” Rodley spoke of “‘drug parties’, domestic violence, rape, and gang activity,” and “spoiled children” spending $1,000 a month on drugs “in a country where the average family lives on less than a dollar a day.”

The cable reported how Cambodia’s rich families are secretly sending their drug-addicted children for treatment at private clinics in China or Australia under the pretext of the children going abroad to “visit family or study.”

Others have written about the culture of bribery that is prevalent among Cambodian youth from elementary schools to university level. Today these reports appear even in Cambodia’s English language newspapers. What Sambath wrote in his e-mail is substantiated in public media. It spreads nationwide. One may not like what Stanford University Professor Joel Brinkley wrote in his book, “Cambodia’s Curse,” about Cambodia’s culture of bribery, but I recommend people to read the book. It is very instructive.

Last month, the United Nations Development Programme released the November 2010 survey of 2,000 Cambodian youth, a survey UNDP conducted with the BBC World Service Trust.

Briefly, Cambodia has the youngest population of any of the 10 member states of the Association of South-East Asian Nations. Two out of 3 Cambodians are under the age of 25; and more than 30 percent of the country’s 14 million are between 10 and 24 years old. The survey found Cambodia’s young people understand little about democratic institutions: Three-quarters of youth interviewed had heard of parliament and 62 percent of that number had no idea what it does; a third of those interviewed did not know what commune councils do; and fewer than one in three young Cambodians was interested in politics.

Yet, the survey found 95 percent of Cambodia’s youth are proud of being Cambodian and of the direction in which Cambodia is headed.

While the UNDP reported that some 300,000 young Cambodians who enter the domestic labor market every year often don’t have the skill sets required by private sector employers, the August 12th Cambodia Daily reported on Cambodia’s Ph.D. degree inflation: While there are 2,000 Ph.D. candidates in the small kingdom, Cambodians seek Ph.D. honorary degrees from non-accredited institutions to improve their job prospects and social status.

If youth is the future of the country and education is a sine qua non element of a country’s development, without change in the status quo ante, Cambodia’s future will be anything but bright.
It is the government’s responsibility to end the current situation and bring about change. If the government cannot do that, a new government should replace it.

The more the reason Cambodians of different political persuasions must work hard for change.

Cambodian Buddhists have access to an historical culture that can provide a foundation for catalyzing personal and collective change. Broad-based application of Buddhist values and principles can help Cambodian society make its way to a future those on the current path may never find.


The views shared in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the AHRC, and the AHRC takes no responsibility for them.

About the Author:

Dr. Gaffar Peang-Meth is retired from the University of Guam, where he taught political science for 13 years. He currently lives in the United States. He can be contacted at  

Document ID :AHRC-ETC-037-2011
Countries : Cambodia
Date : 12-09-2011