PHNOM PENH: It all started with coffee.
Channy Chheng and three friends had a healthy thirst for the hot stuff and the type of conversation that normally comes with it. It was 2011, they were green, curious, politically engaged and their caffeine-fuelled chats could no longer be contained by Phnom Penh’s cafe scene.
“The first time we just met, drank coffee, talked about everything - politics, the economy, education, agriculture - among the four of us,” Chheng said.
“Then we thought, our knowledge is quite limited and when we spoke every day, we learned nothing new so we thought we should expand our group to learn something new.”
What followed was the creation of Politikoffee, a combination of their two passions - coffee and politics - and now Cambodia’s most vibrant community for young people to debate the country’s most pressing and controversial issues.
The Politikoffee network meets on a weekly basis - at a leafy colonial villa not far from the centre of the Cambodian capital. About 30 attendees are expected each Saturday but it now boasts about 300 core members, mostly Gen Ys keen to learn and, perhaps most importantly, argue.
“We don’t just want listening, like a lecture, we want interactive discussion,” Chheng said. “We have the idea of agreeing to disagree, meaning that we want the youth to express their ideas; we want the youth to speak in public and be able to cultivate those skills.”
It is at odds with Khmer culture, which generally solicits respect for authorities and elders. The notion of informed public debate or questioning the status quo, particularly for students or inexperienced civil servants, is a fresh one and it is fostered in a safe and neutral way, according to senior members.
Coffee is an essential conversation stimulant for the participants.
For a relative newcomer to the group like Chea Veasner - a student and aspiring diplomat - holding open, frank public discussions is something he cannot do at university.
“Most Cambodians do not like to argue. They don’t want to accuse others when they speak,” the 25-year-old said. “Most students, like my friends, know a lot of things, but they can’t speak up or criticise or debate."
“Here is a very good thing because we can speak about what is reality and express our ideas. We should speak, it’s a right, but we should be informed,” he said.
In order to encourage learning and the advancement of ideas, each week, a new specific topic is discussed, accompanied by a relevant expert guest speaker in that field. In recent months, Politikoffee has tackled human rights, politics on non-violence, electoral reforms and Cambodia-China relations, timed with the visit of President Xi Jinping.
Many of these issues are rarely discussed in society or in Cambodia’s largely state-controlled media. Nothing is strictly off limits for the group, but there is no political agenda and impartiality is a necessary constant.
“The spirit of Politikoffee is that we want to be free to talk about whatever we want to talk about and we certainly do that,” said active member Vanaka Chhem-Kieth, who is a website co-founder and editor.
He added: “But you also need to be aware of your larger political and social context and also your role. Politikoffee is not an advocacy group and it is not a political group. The core objection is not to necessarily talk about what’s sensitive. It’s a space where you just need to be able to discuss critically."
Anyone is free to join the talks and conversations are normally held in English or Khmer.
It is an important point in a country where politics are deeply divided. The current government led by Prime Minister Hun Sen has remained in power for more than three decades, while leading opposition figures are also largely mainstays of the political scene. Both sides have their strong critics and electioneering is antagonistic.
By international measures, corruption in Cambodia is high, social injustices are rampant and freedom of expression is at risk. It is a scenario, however, that is breeding political engagement rather than malaise, according to Chhem-Kieth, who plays a leading role in expanding the network’s online presence via social media.
“The common generalisation from people who don’t know Cambodia well is that the youth are not politicised, are not interested, partly because it’s difficult here and maybe even dangerous to get involved in political discussions,” he said.
“I think Cambodian youth are actually very passionate about politics because it’s so real here. The social injustices are so much more in your face.”
The participants here need not be planning a revolution, nor may they be the next generation of Cambodian politicians - the founders themselves have said they are more interested in the workings and policies of government than public office.
Yet, there is a platform being generated to encourage young people to stamp their imprint on this country in a productive and positive way.
“Youth, from my experience, all have a vision of what their Cambodia should be, and for the vast majority of them, it’s a Cambodia that is very different from their parents, as far as politics and society goes,” Chhem-Kieth said. “They are trying to do the best they can, with the tools that they have in the context that they’re in.”
That context and those tools are changing as Politikoffee looks to expand its reach. Chheng wants to take the concept to every province in the country, yet the “dream” of the group is to have a permanent, dedicated cafe space for discussions in Phnom Penh.
There is no doubt that there will be plenty of coffee on hand too.
Follow Jack Board on Twitter: @JackBoardCNA