Cambodia’s Children Voice Their Concerns

They can’t vote, but they’re smart, aware and they’ll be around for a long time, so what they say to Cambodia’s future leaders demands attention. 

These are the children of Cam­bodia, the estimated half of the population now under 18 but destined to be the dominant voice in future electorates.

In a survey of how 165,000 of the nation’s schoolchildren think about the way their country is run and how it should be run, Unesco and the Ministry of Education asked students to rank priorities for Cambodia. The results were summarized in a study released Tuesday.

Because the survey was done in schools, it missed the views of the 50 percent of Cambodian children who never see the inside of a classroom, although there are plans for a survey of them.

“Peace,” was the first priority of students in almost every pro­v­ince. And by this, they mean Cambodians should quit killing each other and start solving their problems without bloodshed.

Right on the heels of peace come concerns about inadequate education and health care, de­struction of the environment, a lack of democratic freedom—and demands for an end to corruption.

From Ratanakkiri to Siha­­noukville to Battambang, the children have seen forests leveled, bribes demanded, the poor neglected, fishing grounds dynamited, laws bent and human rights trampled. They are looking to their future leaders to clean up the mess.

Anarchy comes a close second to outright warfare. One little girl put it succinctly: “The problems myself and my family are facing today are banditry, robbery and oppression. We live in fear. The leaders must eliminate anarchy and make the population understand and respect laws.”

A primary-school class laid its concern on the line: “The leaders must stop abusing their power and making people disappear.”

In the Unesco analysis of the questionnaire, graphs and charts show that although most of the children ranked an end to fighting as the top priority, mistreatment of the environment showed up most often in the top 10. Indeed, Battambang, Krat­ie and Sihanoukville set this issue above peace as the most pressing.

“Curb collusion between greedy businessmen and corrupt authorities in deforesting,” Siem Reap primary students said. And another classroom thundered: “Corruption creates anarchy.”

Questionnaire responses show the sharp perception that the children, ages 9 through 18, have of their world. The younger students of several provinces complained of a lack of buffalo and cows to plow the fields, urged increased demining, deplored in detail destructive fishing techniques, called for drilling of water wells and, in Kompong Cham, pleaded with the government to “Increase teachers’ wages so that they stop selling cakes.” Primary students in the same province called for food to be given to the poor and warned: “Make sure it will reach the population.”

Aware of their comparatively privileged position, many of the students called for education to be made available without charge to the poor. They condemned child labor, ad­ding that underage workers are driven by starvation to seek employment and that “They live in fear.”

Different provinces had differing concerns and, aside from demanding a reduction in taxes, the students tended to ignore how the social reforms they advocated should be financed.

Phnom Penh brought a long shopping list of demands to the table. The capital’s students put democracy and human rights as their first priority, ahead of developing education and social services and expanding the economy.

They then launched into a 77-item list of things that need to be done, ranging from a recommendation that government employees get appropriate wages, domestic violence be ended, AIDS be fought, famine be abolished, leaders be patriotic, the elections be free and fair, law courts become non-partisan…continuing right through to the creation of orphanages and homes for the elderly. But how to pay for the list remains unaddressed, and item 58 stresses, “Reduce tax.”

Cambodia’s future voters have a couple of other problems with the behavior of their elders. They think they drive badly and should be made to obey traffic rules. And children throughout Cambodia stated that public toilets should be constructed and people should start using them.

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