CAMBODIA: Key role for universities in healing society

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Vicheth Sen*
20 June 2010
Issue: 129
University World News

Universities need to move beyond their traditional roles of teaching, learning and research towards another core function - linking campuses to communities. They can play a key role in organising programmes in which students have the opportunity to be engaged in civic activities. This is particularly important in countries like Cambodia, which have been damaged by severe societal breakdowns in the past.

The erosion of trust in Cambodia - both interpersonal and institutional - caused by the Khmer Rouge regime, has weakened people's ability to work together for a common goal. It has crippled Cambodia's ability to recover from the devastation caused by prolonged civil conflicts. The Khmer Rouge regime left a psychological legacy - in this case, trauma - which has yet to be treated or healed.

As someone born after the collapse of the Khmer Rouge regime in 1979, I believe that many young Cambodians have been affected by their parents' bad experiences. This trauma has become inter-generational.

Although young Cambodians' experiences are not as bad as those of their parents, parents' traumatic experiences of the genocidal regime and the chronic civil wars have been passed on to their children through the ways they were brought up.

The bad experiences affected the ways people viewed the world around them and how they related to other people. The erosion of trust continues into present Cambodian society.

It is noticeable that the ability to work together among (young) Cambodians tends to be limited to within families and small intimate groups of close friends. People don't seem to have enough confidence to extend cooperation beyond close networks, which really affects their ability to work together as well as the productivity of their work.

Promoting civic engagement at universities allows students to interact with one another beyond their small groups, to communicate with one another, to work together to achieve a common purpose, and to learn about one another, which leads to a better understanding of each other.

This process is critical for confidence and trust building, which is the first step to encouraging people to work together productively.

However, because of limited budget and lack of understanding of the importance of civic engagement, most Cambodian universities focus only on their traditional roles of teaching, learning and research.

Although some students mention having been involved in community service or volunteerism, the primary reason they stated was egoistic rather than altruistic, self-centered rather than compassionate. For instance, the most cited reason for doing community service or volunteerism was to gain some experience so that it was easier to secure a job in future.

I believe being civically engaged means learning to give back to the community, to help one another, to share, to take responsibilities, to understand the working and systems of the government and the processes of choosing a leader, and learning to be a good leader, to be accountable and to understand the principles and practices of democracy, to mention a few.

In this sense, civic engagement at university makes young people build or connect the missing link between the academic world and the real world. Civic engagement makes the students understand the importance of being civically engaged because of the benefits they will gain by doing so.

It also helps them to learn to trust fellow Cambodians through working together and helping those in need of support. At the same time, they learn to be good citizens and good leaders.

What's also important is that civic education programmes help students to understand the importance of their role in a democratic country. This is vital not only in the present but also in the future. I believe that a healthy democratic country has a huge population with high levels of civic mindedness and engagement.

For this reason, in this critical stage of democratising Cambodia, it is important to promote civic engagement among young Cambodians. This will provide a good opportunity for them not only to be well prepared for future careers but also to contribute to a healthy democracy in this newly democratised country.

* Vicheth Sen, a lecturer at the Royal Phnom Penh University, is the author of Higher Education and Civic Engagement In Cambodia: A Case Study at the Royal University of Phnom Penh.


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