Last year, a video of a young man quizzing the U.S. president was widely shared by Cambodian Facebook users. Commenters expressed pride that the youth, one of their countrymen, had the chance to address Barack Obama directly.
“Since yourself is aging toward a very senior life....” Rithy Odom, began his question, inducing laughter from the crowd at Taylor’s University, Kuala Lumpur—and from Obama himself. “What do you want to see from young generations like us when you get old?”
“Well, the first thing I want from young people is to stop calling me old,” Obama responded, in good humor. “I think the most important thing for young people is that they're not trapped in the past,” he continued, in typically relaxed fashion.
The exchange, at an event of the Young South East Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI), characterized the kind of connection Obama has tried to build with youth in the region. The U.S. government-run program for bright youngsters is part of efforts to build so-called “people-to-people ties,” which form a key soft-power element of the “pivot” to Asia that Obama has overseen as president.
“The YSEALI Summit—as well as the other programs in YSEALI—deepens our engagement with Cambodian young leaders on key regional and global challenges,” said Courtney Woods, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh, looking forward to a similar summit that will be held in September at the Nam Ngum reservoir, just north of the Lao capital, Vientiane.
“[Obama] can be both our friend in a personal communication and be a statesman in public talks,” Odom, now 19 years old, told VOA Khmer. “To me, the best take-away from him is to be more open-mined, accepting critics and other people’s ideas. It loses you nothing, yet you earn more.”
The summit in Malaysia also involved a workshop connecting fellows and specialists from around the region, and community work sessions—collecting trash on a beach, distributing food to the elderly and planting trees, for example.
While there are almost 6,000 registered YSEALI members from Cambodia, only a select 200 fellows will attend the upcoming Laos summit, at which Obama will once again be present. Who will get to go has not yet been announced.
Chea Kimguech, 24, a third-year-student in economics at Phnom Penh’s Royal University of Law and Economics, told VOA Khmer she found Obama inspirational.
“I want to know his strategy to lead this multi-national country [the U.S.], where people come from different corners of the globe,” Kimguech said, adding that she would also like to quiz the president on how he became the first African-American commander in chief.
Theam Daneath, 23, who works at a bank, praised Obama as a fair leader, and said she wanted to get advice from the president on how young Cambodians can help solve their country’s problems, like unequal access to education.
“To be specific, [I want to raise] access to the English language, as Cambodia now is in an integrated Asean,” she said. “English is our way out.”
Ty Limkosal, 23, an international relations graduate, told VOA Khmer he would like to ask Obama about one of his possible successors. “What would he think if Donald Trump become the next president?” Limkosal said.
Obama is set to leave office early next year, handing over the presidency to the winner of an election in November—likely between Trump, a real estate tycoon, and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
But, as he said during a YSEALI event in Vietnam in May, Obama intends the program for young leaders to continue, becoming part of his legacy of engagement in Southeast Asia.
“This is something that we’re already planning,” Obama said. “ Our expectation is that the next president will want to continue the incredible work that we've done with the YSEALI.”