the jungle compound of kong thann, Kandal province – An early morning sun peeks through a stand of palm trees as dozens of scouts dressed in uniform shake the morning ache off of legs and arms. It’s the last day of a weekend camping trip and a basic routine has begun to settle in.
At a signal they line up before a Cambodian flag. The national anthem is sung and three fingers snap to each brow. A scout master barks a command and the scouts march off in rhythm, a khaki line of approximately 60 meters winding its way somewhere with purpose.
This is the morning drill of the Cambodian Scouts, a group of 100 youth who have come to the jungle compound of their leader Kong Thann, some 12 km south of Udong, to study camp skills and build camaraderie.
The scout universe is a well-ordered place. The members wear neck scarves and the military-style shirts of the World Organization of the Scout Movement; they study skills taught in the Boy Scout Manual to earn merit badges; they want to progress from the beginner’s rank of tenderfoot to the more prestigious rankings of First Class, Heart, and Life.
Those who last will become not an Eagle Scout, as in most other countries, but a rank of Cambodia’s own: Angkor. Distinctive, and yet part of a worldwide youth group, the Cambodia Scouts claim some 865 members with 32 adult leaders.
Despite all of this, the Cambodia Scouts are not recognized by the World Organization of the Scout Movement, the Geneva-based federation that oversees the world of scouting, because the Cambodia Scouts are one of Cambodia’s two scout organizations. There can be only one, according to the WOSM, so it recognizes neither of Cambodia’s scout groups.
Making matters more controversial, the Cambodia Scouts is headed by a top member of the Funcinpec party, while its rival, the Scout Association of Cambodia, is run by a leading member of the ruling CPP.
The WOSM bans political leanings in its organizations, and in the case of Cambodia has taken a firm stance against both scout groups. A WOSM envoy personally delivered the international organization’s message of displeasure during an official visit in November.
“To date, there is no national scout organization in Cambodia which is officially recognized by WOSM,” said Kim Kyu-Young, the WOSM regional director based in the Philippines.
The consequences of the stalemate are serious for both sides, since it blocks the flow of money from potential donors outside the country: Scout troops in Hong Kong and Thailand say they would send funds to pay for uniforms and camping equipment if Cambodia had an official scout organization.
“If we are a member of the world organization, we can receive technical and financial assistance,” said Kong Thann, adding that he could get $40,000 to $50,000 from donors to send his scouts to an international jamboree, if only he were official.
Kim Kyu-Young attempted to broker a peace deal between the two groups during his November visit, but talks broke down after a month when both sides refused to budge, each offering to allow the other side to join their group.
Amid the political tussling, the Cambodian youths who make scouting part of their day-to-day life say they are happy to learn camping and hiking skills, eager to advance through the ranks of scouting and hope one day to become an Angkor Scout.
Tes Prach Gna, 20, joined the Cambodian Scouts one year ago, becoming one of the many girls in the Cambodia Scouts. Cambodia, like most countries, allows both boys and girls to join scouts. Today, as a second class scout, she has been camping twice.
“I want to get to the Angkor class very much,” she said, speaking to a reporter between studies at the Cambodian Academy of Business Studies, where she and her fellow CS members gather every Sunday.
She said she’s never heard of the Scout Association of Cambodia, and has little idea of the political firestorm brewing in the hierarchy far above her second class perch.
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That Cambodia has a scout organization at all may come as a surprise to some people. Youth organizations were an immediate casualty of the civil wars that tore at the nation’s social fabric.
Then again scouts in Cambodia have never known a lot of stability. Like the checkered history of their country, various scout organizations have come and gone under different names and leadership.
The first scout troop, founded in 1934, was organized as the Khmer Scout Association under Prince Monireth. In 1956 the movement, at 1,000 strong, was renamed the “Scouts of the Queen.” The next year Prince Norodom Sihanouk formed a rival youth group, his state-run “Royal Socialist Khmer Youth.”
The scouts continued to flourish, sending delegations to the 8th World Jamboree in 1955 in Cananda, then again for the 10th World Jamboree in the Philippines in 1958.
The end came in 1964, when Prince Sisowath Essaro announced that all scout members were to join the Royal Socialist Khmer Youth.
Scout movements sputtered to life three times in 1972, 1986 and 1993, falling apart soon after they began due to the political turmoil that plagued Cambodia.
An effort to reorganize in 1994 with the assistance of the regional office of the World Scout Movement and the National Scout Organization of Thailand got as far as training scout leaders before it dissolved in 1996 as political conflicts mushroomed.
A group of men, some of whom had been scouts as teenagers, gathered in 1999 to form the Cambodian Scouts, registering with the government in October of that year. They named Lu Laysreng, the Funcinpec Minister of Information, as their head.
The following year the Ministry of Education Youth and Sport announced it was forming a scout group as well, naming a top CPP official as its director. This week, the SAC strengthened their ties to the CPP when they named Prime Minister Hun Sen their honorary president.
It’s those ties that have fueled criticism that both groups are little more than farm teams for Funcinpec and the CPP, influencing their teenage members as they form a political consciousness.
“Let’s face it, in a general way they are affiliated with the two political parties. So why don’t they declare themselves the young Funcinpec party and the other the young CPP party, and become transparent?” said Lao Mong Hay, the executive director of the Khmer Institute of Democracy. “Why hide themselves under the scout organization? They are created by the two political parties. They are seedbeds for future politicians.”
Though the charge has been widespread, there is little evidence of political tinkering during the Cambodia Scouts weekend camping trip at Kong Thann’s property. The members dance, play games and practice marching skills that they could use one day at the jamboree, if they ever go, but they do not talk about politics. Scouts at the camping weekend say their leaders have not asked them about their political affiliation.
Chea Vannath, president of the Center for Social Democracy, said the political influence may be less obvious than it seems.
“I doubt if there is any requirement to join the party. Each of [the scout groups] claim they have a humanitarian purpose,” she said.
Instead, the scouts will build relationships and as they grow older, and as they become politically active, will influence each other to join the parties of their leaders, she said.
“Because of the figurehead, because of the leaders belonging to the political sphere, I think automatically the purpose of the Boy Scouts seems like political influence of the scouts. In the Cambodian context, it is already enough to say they are politically motivated,” she said.
Chea Vannath, who is also deputy national commissioner of the Girl Guides of Cambodia, a girls-only group that claims no political affiliation, said she was not ready to condemn the idea of scouting altogether.
“The good thing about the scouts is to build the team spirit, which our society is lacking. It is very beneficial for our nation. But if it’s about politics it’s not good because they are too young.”
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Today, the Cambodia Scout troops are based at the home of Kong Thann, High Commissioner of the Cambodian Scouts and an adviser to Deputy Prime Minister Tol Lah. A second floor meeting space is decorated with numerous pictures of scouts in the field using compasses to find their way. A large Cambodian Scouts banner hangs at the end of the room, and scout leaders gather here in uniform, briskly greeting each other with the three-fingered salute of international scouting.
Kong Thann, who speaks English after years of living in the US, translated a Scout Handbook into Khmer and has a version in color. He can only afford to pass out black and white photocopies.
Money woes, perhaps more than anything, limit the scouts. They still don’t have merit badges—there are more than 100 for various skills—because of a lack of funds. Scouts who earn a merit badge keep track of it in a book.
Each scouts is expected to buy their own blue and red scarf, it costs $1, but many cannot afford their uniforms of khaki short-sleeved shirt and blue shorts.
“For the uniform, sometimes the scouts pay, sometimes I pay,” Kong Thann said.
Camping equipment is non-existent. At the Cambodia Scouts camping weekend, many of the scouts slept in a field under three large blue tarps they erected with poles.
The situation at the SAC is not much better, though Lak Sam Ath would not provide figures for the amount he has spent on the scouts. He said the Ministry of Youth, Education and Sport paid some money for camping trips and to buy rubber stamps and paperwork. The SAC does not have a scout manual, or patches.
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Both groups claim they are fairly active, though only the Cambodian Scouts could show a reporter actual members.
The Cambodia Scouts have organized four scouting trips since they began, for 70 to 100 members, teaching camping, fire building and orientation using compasses. They have invited two nuns on some of their trips to teach meditation. They planted trees along a road with the cooperation of the Ministry of Agriculture. They have built a bridge across a stream.
“We try not to train only the traditional scout techniques, but also dance, traditional dance, dubbing, English, Japanese,” Kong Thann said.
Almost all of the Cambodian Scouts are at the rank of Second Class, just one step above the first rank of tenderfoot.
“We try to finish the first class, but it’s hard,” Kong Thann said.
The Scout Association of Cambodia has not held weekly meetings, but they have gone on camping trips, according to Lak Sam Ath, the acting director general of youth and sports at the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport.
SAC members have gone on 10 camping trips in various provinces, attended by up to 120 members. SAC scouts volunteered to help people in Chroy Changvar build a barrier against flooding. They also volunteered for three days at the National Water Festival Day in front of the Royal Palace, collecting rubbish and conducting AIDS awareness activities.
But when asked if a reporter could meet with SAC members living in Phnom Penh, Lak Sam Ath said no, that the members are in the provinces.
“Scouting had low progress until recently,” he said, referring to the government’s decision to form a scout group last year. They registered in July.
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Lak Sam Ath said he had a mandate from the WOSM to establish a scouting organization in Cambodia after traveling to the Philippines and meeting with Kim Kyu-Young privately sometime in early 2000.
“Unfortunately at the time there was also Khamarik Kampuchea,” he says, using the Khmer name of Cambodian Scouts.
Asked why the government’s scout troops could not join the Cambodian Scouts, Lak Sam Ath said the SAC already has a registration in their name, and sets of rubber stamps that bear the SAC imprint. To change the name now would be too costly and inconvenient, he said.
“We established scouting to make it clear that the government has a duty to provide a government subsidy and financing for scouts, because scouting is an educational organization,” he said.
It was the WOSM that tried to broker a peace between the two groups in November. Kim Kyu-Young came to Cambodia and appointed Lak Sam Ath and Kong Thann as co-chairs of the Coordinating Scout Committee of Cambodia. They met on five or six successive Fridays, but agreed to nothing.
Kong Thann tried to explain.
“These people don’t have a handbook; they just go to the Philippines for one month or two months and they claim they are experts in scouting. I have been active in scouts since high school,” he said.
Even more disturbing, he said, the SAC has turned away adults who want to be scout leaders if they are not also members of the CPP.
“The principles of scouts should be nonpolitical, nonmilitary. We follow this principle, but SAC does not. They are all members of CPP. They use government influence to form the scouts. The CPP chief at the province level has to join the SAC,” he said.
The government’s involvement in scouts flies in the face of most international scout conventions, which say that scouting must be nonpolitical, non-religious and not aligned with any government office.
A German scout leader who visited Cambodia recently to inquire about scouting said the group must break away from the government completely in order to be recognized by the World Scout Movement.
“A national scout organization…has to be a non-political, non-governmental, non-profit organization,” he said.
Lak Sam Ath said the SAC is not actually under the control of the government, and the group’s constitution states it has no connections to the government, despite the fact that the leaders of the SAC are COO Minister of Cabinet Sok An and Im Sethy, the CPP secretary of state for the Ministry of Education. Even more curious was the announcement this week that Hun Sen was named the group’s Honorary President.
Lak Sam Ath said despite the ties to the CPP, the SAC does not withhold membership to anyone, adding that he was not a member of the CPP himself.
Lak Sam Ath said he’s interested in reconciliation with the Cambodian Scouts, but first he needs to train more scouts. He said that in six to seven months, perhaps discussions can be held again to merge the two groups.
In the meantime, the group plans a vigorous membership drive, culminating in May with scout training in 27 locations, each pulling in 50 members. The youngest level of scouts, the Cubs, will mushroom to about 10,000 by the end of May, he predicted.
If the Cambodian Scouts and the SAC can work out their differences, they could find common ground at Angkor Wat, where both groups want to hold a national jamboree.
The Cambodian Scouts have planned a jamboree for the end of this year, in late December. They invited the SAC.
The SAC leadership, however, planned an Angkor Wat jamboree of its own.
For the following year.