Strengthening “People-to-People Ties”: Youth Development the Future of Positive Relations between the United States and Cambodia

It is fundamentally important for the contemporary world that international relations play a vital role in strengthening the development of a nation. While globalization shrinks the world we live in and continues to connect people around the world, nations must work together to improve their relations and cooperation. Despite their dark history, the United States and Cambodia are two nations strengthening their bond and working toward better relations with one another through a number of significant avenues, but especially by investment in young leaders. My United States partner and I were fortunate enough to participate in a ground-breaking exchange program, the Young South East Asian Leaders Initiative instituted by President Barack Obama, and have come to know firsthand the power of youth development in fortifying the bonds between two nations.

It should be noted that the quality of the relations between two nations largely depends on the quality of understanding and cooperation of the two peoples. For this reason, history cannot be ignored, and unfortunately the bleakness of the past colors much of the understanding of Cambodian and U.S. relations.

Cambodian, as well as other ASEAN countries, used to experience bittersweet relation with the U.S. in the era of the Cold War.

The history used to be nightmarish and American was hated. The past was filled with war and experiences injected with ideology, and the Cambodians, who are old people today, never despised the U.S. more. Nonetheless, since the 1993 election which started the beginning of democratization in Cambodia, the U.S. and Cambodia have appeared to have escaped the storm. The tragedies leading up to this established peace linger, but the future looks bright for the two countries.

During the Vietnam War, one of the results of the Cold War (from 1955 to 1975),under the Operation Menu covertly commanded under Richard Nixon, American B-52 air bombers secretly bombarded Cambodia more than they had done to Germany during the their five years in the Second World War. These actions and more left a dreadful scar on Cambodia. If one checked Khmer literature such as novels and stories from the Khmer authors in that time, it was clear that the U.S. (and Capitalism) alongside democracy was written in a very negative image. At that time, any positive action taken by America was little to be found, and even less was publicly communicated.

Now, due to the facts embedded in the text books of the contemporary education system, students are mesmerized by the very different images of America then and America now. The war left a dark cloud over the relations between the U.S. and Cambodia, but newer generations see the horizon of hope in the ASEAN.

Because Cambodian civil war came to its demise with the assistance of world powers such as Russia, China, France, and the U.S., it can be seen clearly that the U.S. was, and is, helping Cambodia in terms of development and democratization. Furthermore, the U.S. has been investing in Cambodian youth and facilitating exchanges between leaders from all fields in both the U.S. and Cambodia.

The last twenty years have seen increasing numbers of Cambodian youth being offered scholarships and the opportunity to participate in exchange programs to study in the U.S. In addition, many Americans have come to visit and study in the kingdom. The diplomatic relation among foreign countries towards Cambodia sees the U.S. as the top country to focus on youth development and sustainability more than any other countries.

Using China as an example, it can be seen that since the time China has gradually become an economic giant, the Chinese Communist Party has been trying to build strong ties with the Cambodian government through the offering of grant, aid, donations, and investment. However, the influence of China on Cambodia, besides trying to capture Cambodia—especially the government—as a supporter in the South China Sea Conflict, has provided a somewhat negative image of China among the people in Cambodian society, especially youth.

It appears to myself and the citizens of Cambodia that China came to invest in Cambodia, not for sustainable development, but for China’s benefit and profit. By and large, natural resources such as gold, silver, and forests in Cambodia has been exploited dramatically. Large amount of valuable rose woods have been cut down to be sent to China while wild animals have been hunted for traditional medicine for those Chinese who still believe in such things.

Sooner or later, once those natural resources are gone, China is likely to remove its influence and developmental initiatives from Cambodia.   

On the contrary, unlike China, the U.S. policy towards Cambodia has more to do with sustainable and lasting youth development, and less on exploitation of natural resources.

Interestingly, the U.S. is at the top among countries who engage with the youth of Cambodia. Besides the scholarship program such as Fulbright which is worldwide, the U.S. Ambassador to the kingdom initiates the U.S. Ambassador’s Youth Council which recruits vibrant and outstanding young people to become members.

The purpose of the council is to provide feedback about social issues in Cambodia to the Ambassador, to urge Cambodian youths to initiate ideas to solve those problems, to strengthen the sense of leadership of those youth who will be the future leaders, and more importantly, to build strong relations between the U.S. and Cambodia. This type of initiative is empowering for the people of Cambodia as well as the U.S. and stands to strengthen the bond between the two countries for years to come.

Even more still, the U.S. has been improving relations through youth development in ASEAN as a whole. In 2013, President Barack Obama announced at the University of Malaya the Young South East Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) which is the program that enhances development and builds networks among people in ASEAN. This is the program for which I was a participant and my partner was a student coordinator and it has forever changed my view of the United States and her view of Cambodia.

The YSEALI program was initiated to strengthen the relation between people, to provide “people-to-people ties” as described by the United States Department of State on their webpage, but it was especially creating to support youth within ASEAN. Clearly, it is a win-win situation for the U.S. to build up trust and support a good image in ASEAN, which will be an economic super power soon; at the same time, the U.S. can strengthen the sustainable development in the region as well through initiative of youths in the themes of environment, entrepreneurship, and civic engagement, which are of great importance for the region as well as the world.

I am an alumnus of the YSEALI institute on shared environmental issues and I have to say that this program is splendid for bettering the future of the U.S. and ASEAN. This program brought me to see America, her people, her culture, her success, her problems, and how America has been coping with those problems.

I made friends with American people, stayed with an American family, and learned from American professors. I visited places in America, witnessed her environmental problems, and learned the way the American people deal with those problems.

In return, I shared Cambodia with my American and Southeast Asian colleagues. I presented an honest, first-hand view of my culture, my country, her problems and her successes. More importantly, what I learned from the program was fundamental for my own development and my society.

My American partner also gained insight into the Southeast Asian countries represented by the program, including Cambodia, and learned much about her own country throughout the course of the trip. The program was stationed in the lush and mountainous Missoula, Montana, hosted by the Mansfield Center at the University of Montana. Her job was to act as student coordinator and provide logistical and program support throughout the five-week program.

Mercedes studies Psychology and had very little formal experience studying environmental issues, just a passion for the landscapes of Montana and an interest in Asian culture. Throughout the five weeks of the YSEALI experience she learned more about the countries of the Southeast Asians participating in the program than in all of her education as American student through her second year of college. She helped facilitate trips to Glacier National Park and the Milltown Dam Superfund site to help us gain perspective on the celebration of the environment present within the United States, but also the great damage that has been done to certain areas to do industry and negligence. She shared many American meals with us and participated in a “pot-luck” dinner amongst the five countries of the program to experience a special part of our culture. Deep connections were made amongst the participants in the program as well as their American counterparts during the short five weeks, but really, our connections made were a microcosm for the deeper connections being made between the United States and Southeast Asia.

To end our trip, my colleagues and I traveled to Louisiana and then to Washington, D.C. to get a sense of the great diversity of the United States and to study certain shared environmental issues in more depth. While in New Orleans, we learned about the Mississippi-Mekong Partnership and the many similarities in issues shared between the U.S. and the Mekong delta region. Our countries have much to learn from each other on issues surrounding the environment, particularly those in the Mekong who are particularly susceptible to the impacts of global warming, and this program is one large leap in sharing and comparing systems.

Clearly, it is an accomplishment of the program, not only in the short run, but also in the long term to improve the diplomatic relations between the United States and Cambodia. Such a program and other scholarship programs provided by the U.S. are meant to capture the sense of understanding and cooperation through the intimate feelings of youth from both nations, but this program communicates so much more. The YSEALI program and other exchanges and scholarships provided by the U.S. create real networking connections between business, NGO, and scientific leaders in the U.S. and Cambodia. Without these programs, many of these professionals and students would have never met or would have never been inspired to pursue projects which will change such serious issues such as climate change. This program creates lasting friendships and partnerships, and supports the viewpoint that although we are different, in many ways we are the same.

Most importantly though, programs such as YSEALI communicate that the U.S. and Cambodia are interested in supporting their youth, because they know that young people are the leaders that will carry on a legacy of good relations between the U.S. and Asia. History has done much to taint perspectives, but these programs foster a sense of friendship and care and will likely lead to real collaborations between leaders in the U.S. and Cambodia. Already, my partner and I have worked together on this project and many more projects are yet to come from the connections made by the YSEALI program and efforts by the United States and Cambodia to invest in youth as the key to improving international relations.

In the future, participants of these youth development actions in the ASEAN will become leaders in their countries, and undoubtedly, the sense of cooperation and friendliness towards the U.S. will remain positive and optimistic. Likewise, this sentiment will be the same from the Americans toward Cambodia and other ASEAN countries by connecting with these leaders from across the globe and sharing their cultures and experiences. My experience has convinced me that youth development is a key piece to settling the past and starting a new era of friendship, cooperation, development and positivity around the world, in the U.S. and in Cambodia.  The olive branch has been extended and the initiative has been made to show that the youth of Cambodia matter to the United States and that the intentions for Cambodia are that she prospers and thrives.


Mercedes Becker

University of Montana

Nationality: United States of America


Ket Monny Vathna

Royal University of Phnom Penh

Nationality: Cambodia

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Comment by Untung Waluyo on June 28, 2015 at 1:55am

good readning :) waluhyo

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