As I travel through Cambodia for the past two weeks it took me a while to notice something odd. That is that there are very few people over the age of 50 or 60 years old. In many of the spaces we have been in Natalie and I have been easily the oldest people in the room. And that is not just because we are being toured around by members of the Young Southeast Asian Leadership Institute (YSEALI). The reason is that 60% of the population is under the age of 30 years old, the after effect of over 2 million people dying during the “Killing Fields” era of the Khmer Rouge from 1974 to 1979.
The leaders we have been meeting over the past two weeks have been working diligently to rebuild Cambodian civil society with Cambodian led solutions. We spent time with Natalie’s fellow Bunnath who is working to rebuild a education system that is centered on the success of students and not on the economic interests of those in power. We have met the young leaders who are working with my fellow Hanty to start up the Khmer Talks program that is empowering young people to find their voice and tell their story. There is Bunthann who took a week off to help shuttle us around Siem Reap and the northern provinces of Cambodia and who is working hard to fight major international mining and power companies to protect Cambodia’s rivers. And we cannot forget Ratana who is partnering with schools in his rural province of Oddar Meachey to create school gardens and build new schools and Saarak of PEPY Youth Empowerment who is building up a new generation of young leaders in multiple business and NGO fields.
None of these folks are youth themselves. They are all in their late 20s and early 30s. Many are married with children of their own. But they all hold one thing in common. They are all devoting their time, energy and incredible creative leadership to build up a new generation of leaders in Cambodia. They all see that the future of Cambodia is in the leadership of their youth and they are working on making sure those youth are prepared for this leadership. It has been inspiring to see. I was shocked to learn that the last hold outs from the Khmer Rouge surrendered in 1997. It has only been 20 years since Cambodia was not in an active civil war. That is not a lot of time to recover from the kind of cultural trauma that a regime like the Khmer Rouge can inflict but these young adult and youth leaders have what it takes to move their country forward.