Small Parties Vie for Attention at Youth Debate in Phnom Penh

Youth representatives from six of the eight political parties contesting this Sunday’s national election battled out the issues through debate on Saturday at the Phnom Penh Cultural Center.

The debate—organized by the Washington-based International Republican Institute (IRI) and broadcast on CNC last night—focused on the quality of education in Cambodia and high youth unemployment.

The debate got off to a familiar start, with 35-year-old CPP representative Heng Sour reminding the mostly university-age audience of his party’s role in the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge 34 years ago.

“Since the fall of Pol Pot, we’ve brought 8,557 schools to Cambodia,” Mr. Sour said to loud cheers. “And…Samdech [Prime Minister Hun Sen] has stressed that, in the next mandate, the CPP will ensure that each commune has at least one primary school, each district has at least one high school and each prov­ince has at least one university.”

Cambodia National Rescue Party representative Yang Phan­net, 28, asked the audience not to be so naive in assessing the government’s performance in education.

“If we look at the last 30 years, we will see that education has in fact improved,” she said. “But if we look to our neighbors, we will see it has not improved enough.”

Responses from the minor party representatives on Saturday were more inventive.

“It’s like a husband and wife arguing over whether to buy a motorbike or a car, but they don’t even have any money,” League for Democracy Party representative But Seakne, 27, said in response to a question about how the quality of education in Cambodia could be improved.

“You must go to the source of the problem,” he said. “And we have found that the source of the problem is the concentration of power in only one person.”

To the amusement of the crowd, and the chagrin of the moderator, it was a remark Mr. Seakne would recite almost verbatim whenever he was asked a question.

Yet the most incredulous reaction from the crowd was reserved for the 27-year-old Khmer Anti-Poverty Party representative, Sok Chetra, who said his party was committed to importing tens of thousands of so-called experts and billionaires from the U.S. to help solve Cambodia’s woes.

“How many of you are employed?” Mr. Chetra asked the audience. “Mr. Daran Kravanh [the KAPP’s leader] will bring 140,000 experts who will come with money and experience and help the Cambodian people with their education and jobs.”

Mr. Chetra gave no details regarding who the experts were, or how they would help the country.

After the event, some attendees expressed dissatisfaction with the format of the debate, with one claiming that the larger parties had tapped into networks of students to stack the crowd with people uninterested in a debate.

“Most people came today not to learn about politics, but just to support their party,” said Sokhon, a 25-year-old civil servant. “They just cheer their own party and laugh when the other parties try to talk…. It was really bad, I did not expect that.”

Another attendee questioned how sensible some of the promises that had been made were.

“Some here have the chance to hold power, but they just talk, talk, talk to the stupid people,” said 21-year-old student Nen Sen. “For example, they say if they win, 12 billionaires from the U.S. will come. How can this happen?”

IRI acting country director Jessica Keegan said Sunday that the event was intended to encourage young people to openly discuss policy issues.

“The purpose of IRI’s debates are to get youth engaged with and interested in policy issues that may affect the future course of the nation’s development,” she said, adding that the debate represented “a rare opportunity for young voters to hear about key policy platforms from the various political parties.”

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