"Our generation has been working on things to fix and heal
SOCHEATA VONG, 32
Socheata Vong, 32, is a development professional at an international development organization in Phnom Penh. Born in 1982 in Banteaymeanchey province, she studied at Samdech Euv High School and earned her Bachelor's degrees in International Relations from the University of Cambodia and in Management from the National University of Management. Her work focuses on providing technical support on elections and political processes, civic participation and social media.
Socheata was a Board Member of the Cambodian Economic Association (CEA) from 2009 to 2013. She is a manager of a private Cambodian Professional group (CAMPRO), an informal network joined by more than 400 Cambodian professionals working in various institutions. She is also a Managing Director of CamproPost, a website that publishes articles, essays, discussions, opinions, and documents that are related to Cambodia. I interviewed Socheata to get her views as a Cambodian citizen on the country’s civic participation past, present and future.
Q. What was it like growing up in Cambodia? What were some of the challenges you’ve had to overcome to be where you are today?
A. I grew up in a small village in Banteaymeanchey, where rockets were being shot everyday in my village and near my primary school while Cambodia was still in the civil war in the late 1980s. The rockets were launched by the Khmer Rouge guerrillas from the forests and villages they occupied. All the students and myself were hiding in big holes to cover ourselves from the damages of the rockets at school and at home. The rockets were very massive, the sound was too rumbling. I am still traumatized by that. Even now when I hear any explosions, even small ballon explosion, I don't feel okay at all. The Khmer Rouge defected to the government in the late 1990s.
I am fortunate to be the only child in my family who finished high school, while struggling to earn a daily income by selling snacks in my class and in my home village. Not many students from my hometown could afford to study and live in Phnom Penh at that time. There were only a few, as I recalled.
I finished my high school in 1999, and in the same year I was awarded a title of National Best Student in Khmer Literature, an event that I always remember. While all the graduating high school students had to pass the entrance exams to get to the university, the Khmer Literature award allowed me to choose a university without going through the entrance exams. Without that award, I would not have had a chance to come to Phnom Penh to study because of two main reasons: 1) Each public university accepted a very limited number of students who passed the entrance exams. Not many students passed. Corruption in the entrance exams was rampant at that time. 2) My family could not afford to send me to Phnom Penh and pay for a private school. That award has completely changed my life. I am a great lover of Khmer literature and novel.
Q. Who has been the most influential person in your life and why?
A. My life was greatly influenced by my father who highly valued education although he didn’t have high education. He taught me at home every day during my primary education. He was the one who insisted to send me to Phnom Penh to pursue my higher education. I remembered sending my handwritten letters to my father in my hometown to tell him about my study progress and living conditions in Phnom Penh. He advised me to give a hand to others. He passed away in my hometown while I was in my first-month of employment in early 2003.
Q. What three philosophers past or present have shaped your views on democracy and have shaped your life?
A. Buddha is my greatest philosopher. His philosophies of peace, altruism and compassion have shaped my thoughts. Thomas Jefferson has shaped my thoughts about political philosophy. I am also inspired by his quote, “I'm a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it." Aung San Suu Kyi is the only living human being who shapes my inner life. I have read quite a lot about her including her untold story of personal sacrifice to advocate for freedom and democracy. She is one of the few finest human beings to enrich humankind.
Q. Who in Cambodia are your inspirations?
A. I have been fortunate to have worked closely in a private group with three people who inspire me the most: Mr. Ok Serei Sopheak, an independent governance analyst; Mr. Heng Dyna, new President of the CEA; and Mr. Chan Sophal, former President of CEA. I have worked closely with these great people as well as several other friends in the Cambodian Professionals (CAMPRO) network. I have been truly inspired by their hard work and their caring heart to help contribute to make Cambodia better. I am also inspired by other people who have been working so hard to realize the vision for Cambodia.
Q. It has been almost 23 years since Cambodia signed the Paris Peace Accords. In terms of democracy, in your opinion, what has improved since then?
A. In my opinion, Cambodia has made much progress in the last 20 years. There are signs of improvement in the democratic process. Yet, there is still much more that can be done for Cambodia to realize the vision. The country has gone through a number of elections since 1993. There have been so many flaws in those elections.
I participated as an election observer in the 2008 National Assembly elections in Pailin. Voter intimidation and other irregularities were at large. I also participated in the 2013 National Assembly elections in Phnom Penh. I have observed some unprecedented events. There are reports that found irregularities. So many people who turned out to vote could not find their names on the list. People were shouting and crying. Last time in 2008 when people couldn't find their names on the register they just walked off. This time they stayed and shouted and cried. There is more momentum this time, you can feel it.
The recent election proved to be a positive sign from the perspective of being peaceful, mainly, but there were a lot of irregularities. Post-electoral problems remain just like in the past elections. There have not been any proper mechanisms to resolve the recurring post-electoral conflict. I hope that the two parties will sit together and discuss their negotiations to end the stalemate.
Q. Over 70% of Cambodia’s population is under the age of 35. How are young people helping to shape democracy in Cambodia today and what key role can they play in the future?
A. In the past, Cambodian youth were seen as not active, not attentive and not interested in the political process. However, there have been unprecedented events where youth are now seen as a catalyst for democratic transformation. I was truly impressed by how engaged young people were in the last election. Before, they were mainly interested in entertainment and hobbies and doing fun things. This time, when the opposition leader returned to Cambodia and competed in the elections, so many young people turned out on the streets and were armed with smart phones using social media, wearing campaign T-shirts and caps and waving posters. This phenomenon of youth engagement in the political process also happened to the Cambodian People's Party (CPP) when their youth supporters came out and started their campaign trails on the streets.
Despite some serious confrontations between the youth groups of both political parties, the election campaigns were marked as peaceful. It is my strong hope that the youth will continue to play an important role to engage more in the civic participation of our country. I learned a quote from Aung San Suu Kyi in the Lady movie, in which she said a quote from her father to a junta soldier in the house arrest, “You may not think about politics, but politics think about you.” I want to see Cambodian youth engage more in the social and political processes.
Q. Where would you like to see Cambodia’s democracy in 10 years?
A. In the next ten years, I would like to see Cambodia rising not only in terms of economic growth but also social development, although I acknowledge that the latter is still a long way. I would like to see the Cambodian people to be able to make an informed choice on their future leaders. I would like to see Cambodian people have access to all kinds of information to make decisions in their daily life. I would like to see reforms in democratic development. I would like to see more women leaders. I would like to see Cambodia rise above the social and political norms and become the wind of change for generations to come.
Q. You earlier mentioned about CAMPRO. Can you tell more about the network and what you contribute in the network?
A. CAMPRO is an informal network privately joined by more than 400 members of Cambodian professionals working in various institutions, including academia, government, NGOs, development partners, private enterprises, and media. CAMPRO has three main activities: (i) share information, views and knowledge; (ii) discuss issues; and (iii) network Cambodian professionals. Through this informal exchange of information, CAMPRO members will better understand and learn how to improve their jobs, and therefore increase their private and social contributions. Members debate on political, economic and social issues privately through an online forum.
I am one of three CAMPRO managers and also one of 10 moderators in CAMPRO. My roles as a manager and moderator are co-approval and admission of new members in the network and daily management and operation of the network. Like other members, I have a great interest in sharing information and expressing my opinions in the network. CAMPRO is the most viable and active network I have ever joined and it is my privilege to be a part of it.
I am also a managing director of CamproPost, a website that publishes articles, essays, discussions, opinions, and documents that are related to Cambodia. CamproPost is the brainchild of CAMPRO. Information that is published on CamproPost come from articles, essays, discussions, individual opinions and other materials that are sourced from both CAMPRO and non-CAMPRO members. The website does not have regular updates because we intend to publish only articles that may be deemed important for the public to view.
Q. You’ve been able to build a successful career at a young age. What advice would you have for young people in Cambodia who may be struggling but want to follow a similar career path?
A. I have had more failures than successes and I am inspired by Nelson Mandela’s quote, “Do not judge me by my successes. Judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again." I wish to share some messages to young people about career path as well as about journey to life. First, start small and dream big and never lose hope. As Martin Luther King said, “If you can't fly then run, if you can't run then walk, if you can't walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.” Embrace patience as a virtue. Enjoying the journey to your dreams is more important than realizing your dreams. Second, we live as a community, therefore communication and networking is crucial. So, communicate with others and build networks. Third, be inspired and inspire others. Learn from inspiring people to help shape your life and inspire others with your realized dreams. Fourth, live a life of meaning and purpose by giving a hand to others. Be compassionate to yourself, your family and extend your compassion to others. My last words are: Be altruistic: give more to others and to your country without expecting any return.
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