Sixteen-year-old Vy Tara might seem like a typical high school student, but he believes he has a higher calling. As a Boy Scout, he says he is duty-bound to “help people and educate them about not doing drugs.”
But the Scouts program offers Tara much more than that: it also gives him a sense of solidarity and belonging. Invited to join the scouts when he was 15 by a teacher at his school, Tara said his scout membership would stand the test of time.
“If you are a Scout now, you are a Scout forever,” he said after a recent Scout meet at Olympic Stadium.
While members of the Scout movement worldwide may well echo this sentiment, most scouting organizations also adhere to a strict regimen of nonpolitical and nonprofit activities.
But in Cambodia, the scouts are run by a tightly knit group of high-ranking government officials.
At the helm of the National Association of Cambodian Scouts (NACS) sits Deputy Prime Minister Sok An. The Scouts are also partly funded with money from the national budget, which critics say leads to questions about influencing the country’s youth towards supporting the ruling party.
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan, who is also vice president of NACS, defended having party officials involved in key scouting roles, and said that the movement was still independent from the government.
“[The NACS] is helped by the government, because without the government, they will go nowhere. However, they are an independent entity,” said Mr. Siphan, adding that any allotment of the national budget to NACS should be considered as simple “generosity from the government.”
In September, the NACS announced that it was appointing Prime Minister Hun Sen and his wife Bun Rany as mentors and chief Scouts.
The Scouts movement began in Britain in 1908 when founder Robert Baden-Powell wrote “Scouting for Boys,” a handbook laying out the framework for good citizenship. Baden-Powell was also a well-known fascist sympathizer, and early Scouting badges often featured a swastika symbol.
Since then the movement has grown worldwide, developing in many countries into independent, nonprofit bodies that promote leadership skills and competence in physical activities like sailing, orienteering, climbing, knot tying and baking.
The World Organization of the Scout Movement, which has 161 members around the world, including the NACS, maintains that the movement is nonpolitical.
In Cambodia, the Scouts spend most of their time participating in public service programs like street cleaning, directing traffic and raising money for communities affected by last year’s severe flooding. They also spend hours standing in front of the county’s leaders, who deliver long speeches about doing good in society-and about the CPP’s objectives for the future.
In mid-December, Mr. Hun Sen delivered a speech to 5,000 Scouts on Koh Pich island in Phnom Penh where he encouraged the movement to increase its number of recruits.
According to independent political analyst Lao Mong Hay, the push to get more members is a “tactic” that the CPP is using to build up its power base among Cambodia’s youth.
“The ruling party needs to mobilize the youth into a movement and so they are hijacking the Scout movement to build a power base,” said Mr. Mong Hay.
And those connections to power are not lost on the Scout membership.
Boy Scout Khom Rotha, 17, said that his nascent connections to the government could prove invaluable for his future.
“I hope that after I finish my university, I will get a job in the government thanks to my brothers [in the scouts],” said Rotha, who is one of 19,000 Scout members in Phnom Penh alone.
One recent event he attended was presided over by President Sok An, who gave a two-hour speech at Olympic Stadium during which more than 45 scouts fainted in the heat.
Rotha also recalls numerous speeches from municipal governor Kep Chuktema, who is also the NACS council president.
“All their speeches are useful because it’s all about doing good things and studying harder,” said Rotha.
As for Tara, being part of the Scouts fuels his personal discipline.
“I feel like being in the Scouts is like being a soldier. They have rules and we have to follow them and there are always plans. I really like that,” he said.
He said the organization’s ties to the CPP did not affect his own political orientation. “I don’t think like this. If I want to join [the CPP], I will; if I don’t want, then I won’t join.”
However, opposition SRP lawmaker Son Chhay said it was nearly impossible for SRP members to become scout leaders.
“If they find out there is an affiliation with the opposition party, members of [NACS] will not appoint them,” said Mr. Chhay.
According to Hout Sengtry, administration chief for NACS, all 24 CPP-affiliated provincial governors, all of whom are scouting officials themselves, come together to vote on the appointment of new scout leaders. They are joined by selected provincial education officials, and the conclave is always presided over by Deputy Prime Minister Sok An.
This process stamps out any opposition presence in the organization, said Mr. Chhay, which can send the message that organizations with opposing viewpoints or party affiliations cannot exist.
“This is political indoctrination, and it will become a force…that will prevent freedom of association,” Mr. Chhay said.