Scouting at Global Playground's School in Cambodia

Monday, June 01, 2009 | posted by Jon Heifetz |
In 2008, the fledgling Girl Scout Troop 971 in Philadelphia garnered enough attention to be covered by the city's newspaper of record, "The Philadelphia Inquirer," for one reason. It was the first and only troop in the United States organized exclusively for girls of Cambodian heritage. For these Cambodian Americans, organizing a troop was simply a matter of finding interested youth and parents and approaching the Girl Scouts of Eastern Pennsylvania for recognition.

For the scouting movement to arise in Cambodia itself, however, the path was fraught with difficulties. When uniformed scouts raised the Cambodia flag and sang the national anthem during the opening ceremonies at Global Playground's school in the Koh Kehl village, their presence represented the perseverance of scouting through a history of colonialism, civil war, political opportunism, and genocide.

In the century-long history of scouting in the United States, the government has never prohibited scout troops from forming or exploited scouts for political purposes. Such has not been the case in Cambodia. The first scouting movement in Cambodia, Ankar Khamarak Kayarith (AKK), arose in 1934 when Cambodia was part of French Indochina. Scouting was then halted as the Japanese occupied Cambodia during World War II, but resurrected again when the Japanese were defeated. In 1956, AKK, with 1000 scouts, was renamed "Scouts of the Queen"; one year later, a rival, state-run socialist organization, "Royal Socialist Khmer Youth," was launched, and in 1964, all Scouts of the Queen were ordered to join the socialist organization. In 1975, the dictator Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge regime officially banned scouting.

Over the next quarter-century, several attempts were made to resurrect Cambodian scouting; each was unsuccessful. In 1999, a group of men, some of whom had been scouts themselves, formed the Cambodian Scouts. By naming Lu Lansreng, then Cambodia's Minister of Information, as their leader, the Cambodian Scouts immediately became aligned with Funcinpec, the monarch-friendly political party. Funcinpec's rival, the socialist-leaning Cambodian People's Party (CPP), soon backed a rival scouting group, Scout Association of Cambodia (SAC), whose honorary head was Prime Minister Hun Sen. Although scouting was resurrected, the World Organization of the Scout Movement (WOSM) would not recognize scouting in Cambodia because the two groups were politically-aligned.

In 2005, the two groups merged to form the coeducational National Association of Cambodian Scouts (NACS). According to Mr. Sok An, the Deputy Prime Minister of Cambodia and head of NACS, the goal of NACS is to encourage youth to "avoid and reduce their drug use, and to avoid perpetrating delinquent acts which are ravaging Cambodia currently." In 2008, NACS achieved a milestone. It was finally invited to become a member of the WOSM, hopefully marking an end to many years of turbulence for Cambodia's scouts.

Scouting in Cambodia in many ways resembles scouting in the United States. Cambodian scouts begin their day by lining up before Cambodia's flag, saluting the flag, and marching in unison at their scoutmaster's command. Cambodian scouts also study a Scout Handbook; wear khaki uniforms complete with neckerchiefs; learn outdoor skills, such as camping, fire building, and orientation; and seek to advance in rank. Instead of becoming an Eagle Scout--the Boy Scouts of America's top honor, which invokes the image of the bald eagle, the national bird--a Cambodian scout aspires to the rank of Angkor, named for the pride of Cambodia, Angkor Wat, a twelfth-century temple and UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Despite the similarities, scouting in Cambodia also has its distinctions. Unlike in the United States, where separate scouting organizations exist for boys and girls, scouting in Cambodia is coeducational. Additionally, with Cambodia's relatively low standard of living, the nature of scouting is inherently different than in the United States. Scouts have no camping equipment, only blue tarps to shelter them from the elements. There are no tangible merit badges, only a book to keep track of them.

In many ways, the challenges Global Playground faces in Cambodia parallel those of the country's scouting movement. Cambodia is still reeling from the deep scars inflicted by the Khmer Rouge regime of the 1970s, which sought to eradicate all signs of intellectualism and alleged Western influence. Cambodians with any education, or those who wore glasses and were therefore perceived as being literate, were systematically executed. If not murdered, urban Cambodians were often forcibly relocated to farms, where many died from overwork and exhaustion. Schools, banks, hospitals, and factories were closed; currency and finance were abolished.

The scars of this anti-intellectual campaign are still borne by Cambodia. Even as late as 2004, Cambodia was virtually devoid of schools because of the Khmer Rouge regime and only one-tenth of one percent of Cambodians had achieved a sixth-grade education. It is only through education that Cambodia can revive itself from the past, and that is where Global Playground comes in, having built a five-room school for the children of the Koh Kehl village. With access to education and a flourishing scout program operating at the school, the students at Koh Kehl are being provided opportunities not seen in generations. Through these opportunities, the effect of the atrocities of the past will be reversed.

-Jon Heifetz