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Two ‘Youth Leaders’ Arrive for US Visit

Two Cambodian youths who won a trip to the US from a television contest in Cambodia are meeting with US government officials and lawmakers.

In the contest, youth exhibit leadership skills, confidence and knowledge of democracy, in a program broadcast on CTN that is gaining in popularity.

This is the third sponsored trip conducted with support from the International Republican Institute and the Youth Council of Cambodia.

Yon Sophal, 21, a-third-year student at the University of Law and Economic Science in Phnom Penh, was one of the winners, in 2008.

In an interview with VOA Khmer in Washington, she said the most difficult of 10 subjects was community development; she had tried to convince villagers in Kandal province to rebuild a bumpy road.

“When I went down to persuade the community to participate with our activities, they always asked us whether the program would benefit them,” she said. “So we had to explain to them and lobby them to participate with our development program.”

Each contestant is required to undertake activities such as gathering signatures for a petition, public speaking, or community activism.

Yon Sophal said democracy so far in Cambodia can be slow, its processes unclear.

“We saw the selection for a leader was made with an election open to the public, but the question is whether the election came from the people’s true will or not,” she said. “We also haven’t seen freedom of expression, and youth participation in politics is still limited. We want the government and organizations involved to develop, encourage and urge more improvement in this field.”

Chhem Pe, 20, a fresh high school graduate from Siem Reap Province, was a winner in 2009.

“The most difficult episode of the contest was when I was trying to lobby people to provide blood in Phnom Penh to contribute their blood to the Cambodian national blood bank,” he said. “Some people did not like it. They said we were collecting blood to sell, not for donation.” They were nevertheless successful, he said.

Chhem Pe was also required to convince people in Svay Antor district, Prey Veng province, to fundraise for a small road, in an area where travelers often had difficulty during periods of flooding.

“Those countryside people have a lot of issues related to the health care services,” he said. “Normally, the health care services in the rural areas is not like in the city. The health care service there is not appropriate for them, so that makes them have serious problems.”

In a two-week trip, the two youths will meet officials and lawmakers and visit the Capitol, as well as museums and a professional baseball game. They will tour New York and visit the UN and the Asia Society.

John Willis, Cambodian country director for IRI, said that the youths will bring back good experiences to improve society.

“They are no longer a frog trapped in a well, who can only see the walls around him,” he said. “Winners come back to Cambodia having seen how a successful society works, and how its component parts fit together. They raise their expectations for their own country. They have met real role models for how they can improve their country themselves.”