Every Saturday afternoon, in a room in the Phnom Penh offices of a German political foundation, chairs are arranged in a u-shape. About 50 people, from a range of backgrounds, gather and chit-chat.
Eventually, the room at Konrad Adenauer Stiftung becomes the scene of lively political debate. Despite the talk among politicians of a “culture of dialogue,” such debate remains a rarity in Cambodia. This is Politikoffee, a forum that observers say is transforming the discussion culture among the youth here.
The attendees are mostly young Cambodians, and represent a range of political views, Ou Rithy, a co-founder of Politikoffee, told VOA Khmer. They have the opportunity to express their opinions and discuss Cambodian politics alongside history, international relations, public policy and social issues, he said.
Politikoffee was initiated in 2011 by Ou Rithy, a graduate who majored in political science while studying in India. He explained that he named the event Politikoffee because he wanted to counter the trend of young people drinking alcohol whenever they meet up. Therefore, Rithy said, he serves coffee, and snacks, to stimulate the debate.
“At first we discussed only political issues and history amongst ourselves. That way, we learnt a lot from each other from our discussion,” he said. “Then, in late 2012, we came up with the idea of inviting experts and guest speakers to share their ideas.”
The event has hosted a wide variety of speakers and experts, including students from Harvard, Oxford and Cambridge universities as well as monks, women’s activists, teachers, diplomats, and social analysts.
During the three-hour discussion, speakers and the participants are given a chance to present their views and to challenge one another.
“We think that discussion is useful,” Rithy said, “because we believe that to make change and build democracy we need two factors: a culture of discussion and debate and blogging. That is why we hold a discussion every Saturday, and we also established a website for youth to blog.”
The value of the discussion was in young people being able to practice politics, leadership and discuss policy ideas, he said, which would help Cambodia’s next generation of leaders become accustomed to a culture of discussion.
“There is no school that teaches us like this,” he said. “I think it is good for anyone who wants to be a politician in the future. They will firstly learn to lobby the other members [of the forum].”
Chhorwathana Chhin, a 19-year-old junior at the Institute of Foreign Languages, who has attended Politikoffee events since 2013, told VOA Khmer that the forum had given her the opportunity to learn about current affairs and participate in discussions about issues she cares about, like the country’s border disputes, women’s issues and democratization in Cambodia.
“Because every speaker invited to Politikoffee is an expert in his field, I believe that the information provided cannot be found in any book or learnt from school,” said Chhorwathana Chhin, who has also contributed three articles posted on the website politikoffee.com.
Besides the weekly discussion and blogs, Politikoffee has a Facebook group that lets its members raise the issue that they want to be discussed at upcoming events. The group has also begun collecting contributions to a fund to go toward setting up a coffee house in which political debate can flourish.
Kem Ley, a social development researcher, said Cambodia had never had anything like Politikoffee before.
“Young supporters of every political party can participate, while the senior supporters of each party don’t tend to come,” he said, praising the event’s youth-centric focus.
Klauth Dararoth, another participant from the Royal University of Law and Economics, said that attending the sessions had helped him to network and share knowledge and experience with new people.
“It helps youths show their capacity as well as build confident in themselves,” said Dararoth. “Having joined Politikoffee twice, I have developed my self-confidence, such as daring to speak and to express my ideas in front of other youths.”