It’s going to be a long week for Cambodia’s scouts.
Normally a group of children content to practice their thrifty, brave and reverent ways, the scout troops here must endure a kind of national humiliation starting today as they sit out a Jamboree—scout-speak for an international conference—in nearby Thailand.
The jamborees, held every other year or so in various locations around the globe, are usually a time for sharing shoulder patches and knot-tying skills; because it’s in Thailand for the next 10 days and not in a faraway destination, most of Cambodia’s thousands of scouts would have been able to attend.
Instead, they were told not to come.
Cambodia is home to two scout groups, both with suspicious ties to political parties, and because scout rules strictly prohibit political affiliations, neither the Cambodian Scouts nor the Scout Association of Cambodia has official recognition from the World Order of the Scout Movement, a Geneva-based federation that oversees the scouting world.
No official recognition means no invitation to the jamboree, to the dismay of people like Cambodian Scouts Scoutmaster Nai Vannak.
“I would like the Cambodian Scouts and the Scout Association of Cambodia to find a solution,” he said Sunday. “I don’t want the world to not want us.”
Most anyone might guess that Scouts, the international youth group that teaches self-reliance to teenagers, would involve a politically free, military-like chain of command from top to bottom, just like the group first envisioned by the movement’s English founder, Lord Baden-Powell, nearly 100 years ago.
But not in Cambodia, where political influences run deep.
The Cambodian Scouts have as their high commissioner Kong Thann, a man who has been active in scouting organizations for years and who wrote the first Scout Handbook in Khmer. He readily acknowledges his own ties to Funcinpec, including a job as adviser to Funcinpec Minister of Education, Youth and Sports Tol Lah, but says they have little bearing on what he teaches his 1,000 or so members.
He also asked Funcinpec Secretary-General Prince Norodom Sirivudh to head his group; the prince has turned him down.
His scouting competitor is the Acting Director General of Youth and Sports at the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports, Lak Sam Ath, a man who acknowledges his ties to the CPP but, like Kong Thann, says his political affiliation makes no difference in the way he organizes his 23,000 or so members.
Officials from the world scout organization have attempted to broker a deal between the two sides, including the most recent attempt last month by Abdullah Rasheed, a man who only recently became the regional director for the world body and as such inherited the Cambodian standoff.
Rasheed made his own efforts to mend the fractured scout world of Cambodia, to little avail. After offering to come to Phnom Penh for a fact-finding mission in late November, Rasheed had to cancel when the two groups could not find time to meet with him, or each other.
“In the meantime, please keep us informed of the progress you have made in your own scouting activities and towards ONE scout organization,” Rasheed wrote in an e-mail to Kong Thann.
Earlier efforts to bring the two groups together ended badly when each group suggested to the other that they disband and send their members to their other scout group.
“The thing is that we are not united,” said Kong Thann. “We have no national scouts so we cannot be admitted.”
Kong Thann says his organization has done what it can to strip away political influences. He disbanded his board of directors last month since many of them had ties to Funcinpec.
And rather than give up his own job as an adviser to Tol Lah, he will quit as high commissioner of the Cambodian Scouts as soon as he finds a worthwhile replacement.
Kong Thann said he hopes to have a meeting with the leadership of the SAC to resolve the dispute, but at their last meeting his offer to form a new organization shared equally by the existing ones was rejected, he says, when he was told he was asking for too much.
Kong Thann, who has directed his Cambodian Scouts organization since 1999, now bristles at the thought of folding his organization and joining the Scout Association of Cambodia.
“They think they are better than us in quantity, but we are better than them in terms of quality,” he said.
He points to his self-published Scout Handbook, available in the Khmer language since 2000, and a track record of teaching the scout skills of camping, rope-tying and singing to his members at a private farm near the ancient capital of Odong.
Lak Sam Ath, of the SAC, said he hopes as well to broker a deal, but, he added, that his group is open to all political parties.
“We don’t have a policy to restrict anyone,” he said. “I think all parties can join the SAC, not only the CPP. We are open. But I think the government supports us.”
Indeed, Prime Minister Hun Sen has shown his appreciation for the SAC by purchasing uniforms for the students, according to Lak Sam Ath. The group also receives funding from the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports for various scout needs.
Lak Sam Ath defended his organization’s curriculum, saying it teaches the students what they need to know later on in life.
“We have a lot of training, including scout motions, scout law, scout morals and especially scout methods. We teach the scouts to do a daily good turn. This is very important for the scouts,” he said.
Lak Sam Ath said he thinks a deal might be reached by 2004 or so, but he’s less clear on how that will be done. For now he is sending the SAC’s Japanese adviser Osamu Matsuda to the jamboree.
For both sides, there’s more than an invitation at stake.
Official recognition for Cambodia would allow scout groups elsewhere to send donated supplies and uniforms.
“Cambodia should be a member of the world scouts and we will have more support from the outside,” said Cambodian Scout scoutmaster Chhit Vimon, 25.
“I’m quite sad too, but we have been trying to find a way to compromise to join the two groups together,” said scoutmaster Pan Sokunthea, 22, one of a handful of women scouts in Cambodia.
There is a glimmer of hope for the scouts: the scout association of Korea has invited them to observe as guests a child jamboree in May. Some 52 countries are expected to come.
In the meantime, some are still hoping for a deal.
“I would like to appeal to the SAC to compromise as one team and not be involved in political issues,” said scoutmaster Nai Vannak, 30. He said he met a few members of the SAC at the Water Festival and out of earshot of their leaders talked about the problems between the two groups.
He found his supposed competitors engaging.
“I told them if we joined together it would be quite fun,” Vannak said.