The US has steadily been increasing its engagement with Southeast Asia, launching in recent years a wide range of programs. Among them is the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative, which launched under President Barack Obama in 2013 and aims to develop leaders in the region under the age of 35.
Courtney Woods, a spokesman for the US Embassy in Phnom Penh, told VOA Khmer the program is meant to ensure that young leaders in Cambodia and the region “have the resources, the tools and the network they need to basically place the future, as well as the present situation, in their communities in their own hands.”
A number of activities, programs, fellowships, and workshops have been designed to empower young people to take advantage of opportunity and be able to take on leadership roles and other issues, he added.
“Those issues typically are environment awareness and civic engagement,” he said. “Another issue is looking at the Asean economic integration that’s going to happen. Economic development is a huge issue for young people in the region.”
The Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative now has 2,558 members, with a number of them selected to go to regional workshops, as well as exchange to the US.
The initiative creates a support network that helps young people have a direct connection with others in the region and empowers them to make a difference in their community, Woods said. By joining, young people also have the opportunity to go to the US to engage with members of the government, business sector and civil society to share experiences and gain new ideas.
Ket Monny Vathna, a 23-year-old alumnus, said the program is different from others since it provides both academic and professional guidance.
“Five weeks is short, and we cannot learn as much as exchange undergraduates study, but it provides us skills, skills that we don’t learn in school, including skills in writing project proposals and skills in initiating projects,” he said. “For example, we want to do a project, so we must know what the stages are, how to arrange that project, how to establish groups to run that project.”
Ket Monny Vathna, who is interested in environmental issues, said that when he went to the US, he was given chance to see melting mountain ice resulting from climate change and learned what the environmental issues in the US are, compared to the typical environmental problems in Cambodia, which are drought and deforestation.
“I think this program primarily gives knowledge. Second, it encouraged me to love (the environment) and move on to do my work related to the environment,” he said. “After I returned, my group initiated a project to plant trees with indigenous people and brought students from Phnom Penh into community forests of the indigenous groups to learn about the impact to those who depend on the forest, [and about] climate change, and the difference between the lives of the city dwellers and those whose lives rely on the forest.”
Kanhchany Sipha, 21, another exchange student under the program, said she gained many benefits from it, such as building networks with other youths in the region and living and studying in US, where she learned more about American culture, as well as leadership skills and practical skills, like communication and adaptation.
She is now working with a small team to create a bike tour, as Cambodia will be hosting a reunion for the initiative next year. “We will guide them by bike to Angkor Wat sites, to learn about our culture and how to maintain the temples with other partners,” she said.
Kanhchany Sipha also tries to share her experiences with other Cambodians, especially those who live in the provinces and may not have access to information about it.
Ou Rithy, a co-founder of Politikoffee, a youth-oriented political forum, told VOA Khmer that this initiative and other programs offered by the US are good for Cambodia.
“I think democracy and a free market are widely spread around the world, and if we decide to accept this system, studying in the US is good, since this country is very expert and knowledgeable about this issue,” he said.