PHNOM PENH: They are two young women full of hopes for their nation: High profile, energetic and not afraid to speak their mind.
They are also two opposite sides of the same coin.
Thy Sovantha and Sin Rozeth have perhaps far bigger profiles than their respective career achievements so far might suggest.
Sovantha is a social media juggernaut - a hugely influential but controversial political maven, a turncoat for some, who rallies in the name of the ruling party.
Rozeth defied expectations as a fresh and unversed opposition candidate swept into a most unlikely rule and then cut down in the purge of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) last year.
But it is not what they have done so far that counts. It is their potential to inspire in a country deeply divided.
The power of new youthful voices has never been realised under a strong armed-government installed since 1985. The old and forceful hands of the kingdom have a finite shelflife.
And on both sides of politics, Sovantha and Rozeth are the faces of an awakening new generation.
On a daily basis during this election campaigning period, Thy Sovantha’s 2.2 million Facebook followers have been treated to her vote-garnering activities, mostly in rural provinces.
Amid an array of fashionable outfits, she is also often adorned in ruling party colours. But the 23-year-old was once the darling of the nation’s opposition.
Just five years ago, as the importance of social media on the political environment began to be understood, the vision of the then teenager standing through the sunroof of her Lexus demanding Prime Minister Hun Sen’s defeat at the polls was a revelation.
Now, she shares old photographs and contemporary speeches of the leader she respectfully calls "Grandpa".
“Samdech (Hun Sen) used to say that he used to see my Facebook. Even when I used to criticise him, he still clicked ‘Like’ for me. So, it meant that Samdech accepted some of my points,” she said.
Her transformation from a radical revolutionary to one of the government’s sharpest weapons was a dramatic, if not murky, one, involving allegations of spying, betrayal and epiphany.
She admits she was naive, clouded by desire to see change and made mistakes back then. Sovantha was a self-described “ordinary girl” with no political connections wading out into a toxic and dangerous tide.
“We wanted to change. We wanted to change leaders. We wanted to change the country. But at that time, I didn’t understand,” she told Channel NewsAsia, sitting in the expansive chamber of the National Library in Phnom Penh.
In 2018, she is unwavering in her passion for a new and improved Cambodia, just under the same management as the last three decades.
“I am very proud that I was a youth who criticised the government. I made mistakes. But the government understood my mind and my heart and gave me a chance to participate in developing the society,” she said.
“Now, I still want change but I understand the way.”
She strongly argues that reform can best be delivered from a position of strength, not through struggle and believes that the government has already begin “cutting out the bad flesh”.
She has little sympathy for forgotten friends and speaks with venomous conviction about the “dangerous” characteristics of the opposition movement she once belonged to and in particular exiled former opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who continues to call for a boycott of the July 29 election.
“I think it is dangerous by creating an idea of division among the people. If no CNRP, then nothing at all. It is a kind of nepotism and violent and individualism.”
Some 300km from the capital, in the comparatively quiescent town of Battambang, Sin Rozeth continues to uphold the democratic ideals of Rainsy. While he may be yesterday’s man in the struggle to overhaul Hun Sen, Rozeth has the potential to be tomorrow’s woman.
Officially, she is just a restaurateur and online entrepreneur these days, but her three short months as commune chief of her local district made an impression.
She was cornered, coerced and offered the chance to stay in the seat by defecting to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) when her party was legally dismantled. When she refused to switch sides, leading authorities might have hoped she would switch off.
While her colleagues and contemporaries have been silenced, Rozeth remains a brave front of resistance.
“Sometime, we know how to protect children and wives and our families, our small families,” she said. “But when our big family is suffering, why don’t we come out to protect it?
“I think that if I am born with eyes to see and born with a mouth, but I close my mouth, it is meaningless to live. It means I am living but waiting for death. So, no, I have to speak out.
“Our life is not immortal, but what is immortal is our homeland.”
Amid a climate of fear and ongoing threats, Rozeth’s courage has formed through necessity. But political intimidation is just the latest stanza of a brave life that was steeled and strengthened when she was seven or eight years old.
“I knew how to sell pineapple alone on the train. I could go to sell black beetles at a concert at midnight and when my mother went to join meetings in Phnom Penh, I could sleep alone in a straw house without walls at a young age, with just a kerosene lamp.
“I put a knife under my pillow in case any wanted to abuse or mistreat me. I can protect myself.”
A WOMAN’S PLACE
Both of these young women’s rise to prominence defies the lingering notion in Cambodia that public life is a man’s game. Both have fought the prejudices and antiquated customs to stake their place in what remains a patriarchal society.
They may disagree on how the country should advance and who should lead it, but both see women at the forefront of the discussion.
“I think it is unfair. We are the same. We are human beings. We must be equal. I have my mind, very strong, so I can do everything,” Sovatha said.
“They are afraid of facing danger at the moment because there are threats, imprisonment and because of all means of intimidation. All these factors are making our women feel hesitant,” Rozeth said.
“If we intend to participate in developing the country, we have to be self-confident. Then, we take the chance.”
They are nothing alike. One, the immaculate polish on the facade of an oft-reviled regime, the other a bespectacled champion of the hushed underdog.
One will vote with certainty on Sunday, the other will boycott holding her clean finger in the air without fear. And both know the realities of the outcome, decided many months ago when the CNRP was banished.
The country is unlikely to be much different next week, but both Sovantha and Rozeth will take their places in fighting for their visions for Cambodia.
Down the line, eventually, when the youth stand up and take their place steering this country’s future, they may not be so different after all.