Young Cambodians rock the vote

Political parties vie for support of the country's rising generation in Sunday's national election.

Down a dusty road on the outskirts of the capital, a hotel's neon sign lights up an otherwise empty street. Inside, where hip-hop is as loud as the neon, young Cambodian boys in baggy pants and girls in crop tops dance under multicolored lights.

It's a scene that would have been unheard of a few years ago, let alone when these young people's parents struggled under the oppressive forces of the Khmer Rouge. But today, Cambodia's youths are considered the most politically active among a population long tempered by years of fighting. And as Cambodia gears up for the July 27 national election, political parties are trying to think young.

"The youth are going to change this place," said "DJ Sope," the Cambodian-American host of the party. "Now they're ready to go. And there's no stopping them."

Whether for demonstrations against garment-factory conditions or to raise teachers' salaries, protest organizers look to youths for nearly all their support. When election monitoring groups appealed for local observers to fill their ranks, the response was almost exclusively from this younger generation.

"They are a strong force," says Koul Panha, executive directorof the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia. "They work voluntarily, have a lot of energy, and go to the countryside."

Election monitors and politicians say this last point is crucial. An increasing number of young Cambodians have been flocking to Phnom Penh and other urban centers to study and work in recent years. When they return home, they are seen by villagers as the vanguard of a new, modern era.

"They go to study in Phnom Penh and when they come back, they are educating their family," says Mr. Panha. "The son or daughter of a peasant farmer comes back and asks why they're not fighting corruption."

"It wasn't like that before," he says. "They didn't even see it as corruption."

Election observers say new issues facing Cambodian youths, like drugs and HIV - and even old issues like joblessness and education - have moved up the campaign agenda, but most parties still aren't adequately addressing them.

Some political parties are turning to groups like the Khmer Youth Association (KYA) for advice. A KYA representative said they were courted by the major political parties well before the election campaigns began, and party leaders reviewed their platform ideas with KYA members, asking for recommendations.

"When we were developing a strategy for our campaign, the focus group was really the youth," says Mu Sochua, the minister of Women's and Veterans' Affairs. She is also a spokesperson for the royalist Funcinpec party, whose support has traditionally come from the generation that lived under the monarchy of the 1950s and 60s. "Their numbers alone make it or break it for any political party," Ms. Sochua says.

National Election Committee statistics estimate that more than one-third of some 6.3 million people who will vote in the upcoming election are 30 or under. And the number of teens coming of voting age is only expected to increase, with more than 60 percent of the total population age 24 or under, according to a recent UN Population Fund report.

"Most parties are really thinking about the future of the youth now," says Chiv You Meng, vice president of KYA. "In campaigns, they're talking about it. They think the youth are the future of the country." But Mr. Meng worries that once the elections are over, the courtship will end and political parties will return to ignoring youth issues, including pleas for long-time civil servants to make room for young workers.

Some political observers say organizations trying to bring younger people into the political arena have fallen victim to their own success. They say young Cambodians are being divided by parties jockeying for their support, and their success in politics ultimately depends on a unified youth voice.

But others say young Cambodians surfing the Internet in local cafes are more aware of the issues facing the nation and the world than any other constituency, and are not a segment of society the parties can afford to ignore.

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