“Cambodia will be changed by its young people,” Sun Sokun Mealea said. The 29-year-old political activist and vice president of Cambodia’s most vocal youth organization, the Democratic Front of Khmer Students and Intellectuals, sat Wednesday morning in an overstuffed chair in her office near Wat Phnom.
Her window, decorated with a Cambodian flag, overlooks a ground-floor computer lab where some of the organization’s 10,000 members sat hunched over their keyboards.
The building, which doubles as the headquarters of the youth-focused Khmer Front Party, is an epicenter for the young and politically active. They come here, learn about politics, exchange ideas or just hang out, Sun Sokun Mealea said.
The country’s youth vote is now more important than ever for parties to gain or maintain power.
More than 500,000 18-year-olds are newly registered to vote, according to figures from the Khmer Youth Association. And more than 1 million Cambodians turned 18 since the last elections, the National Election Committee has reported.
Of the total population, 52 percent are between the age of 14 and 24.
Cambodia is brimming with young people. Many of the children born during the post-Khmer Rouge baby boom in the first years of the 1980s will vote in July for the first time. And organizations like the Khmer Students and Intellectuals hope to draw them in with their progressive message of change.
“More political parties are focusing on young people in the universities,” said Yong Kimeng of the Khmer Youth Association, an independent youth organization working to teach Cambodians about the political process. Cambodia’s youth are “ambitious to have a change,” he said.
Him Monypheak, chief of advocacy and media for the Youth Council of Cambodia, said, “It’s important to educate the youth to know about their obligation to vote.
“We hope that many youth will go to vote and change our society into a democracy,” he said.
The youth council is a collective of five student and youth organizations that have joined together to bolster youth participation in the upcoming national election. Him Monypheak said the CPP, Funcinpec and the Sam Rainsy Party have integrated many of the their ideas on youth into their platforms. “We will no longer vote for a political party that rejects proposals from the country’s youth.”
But the Khmer Students and Intellectuals aren’t entrusting issues important to young Cambodians to one of the three major political parties. Instead, they have started their own.
“The Khmer Front was set up for the representation of Cambodian youth,” said Sun Sokun Mealea. Its creation “is for the next generation.”
The newly formed party works within universities in Phnom Penh and other student groups to attract students who are interested in “expelling Hun Sen from power,” she said.
During the one-month election campaigning period that starts June 26, the Khmer Front Party plans to take its message aimed at young Cambodian voters to the streets.
“We will use that time to point out the violations of the CPP and its institution of power,” Sun Sokun Mealea said.
But just bringing the message to the country’s bulging teenage voting population won’t ensure an overwhelming youth turnout.
“Students and other youth are scared with the upcoming national election. They don’t know what’s going to happen, and they’re afraid to speak out in public because the government uses force to break up demonstrations,” said Men Nath, executive director of the Khmer Students and Intellectuals.
The growing number of student and young political organizations are beginning to chip away at the culture of fear that keeps many of the country’s young from voting, student leaders agree.
The Khmer Youth Association has targeted nine provinces in which to promote voter education and encourage voting among Cambodian youth.
If their message breaks through, Sun Sokun Mealea said the country could witness a democratic revolution led by the young and politically aware Cambodians.
“There are more young people than old people,” she said.