IRI and Cambodia: The Next Politico of Southeast Asia?

  • Chris Comer

Since 2007, Politico has been feeding the insatiable appetites of DC insiders, policy wonks, hill staffers, as well as poli-sci students across the country with political analysis on the day-to-day of American democracy in action.

In 2015, Politico launched their Europe division which has been warmly embraced by our neighbors across the pond. The consistent expansion and successful adoption of this niche publication brings the question to mind; where is Politico heading next?

In the past 75 years, Cambodia has had ten different forms of government, transitioning from a French colony, to Japanese occupation, to an independent monarchy, to a constitutional monarchy, to Lon Nol’s Khmer Republic, to Democratic Kampuchea ruled by the Khmer Rouge, to the communist People’s Republic of Kampuchea, to the State of Cambodia under Hun Sen, to the uneasy three-party government facilitated by the UN, to the government subjugated by the Cambodian People’s Party today. Cambodia recently scored a 32 out of 100 on Freedom House’s Freedom in the World Report as their road to democratic transition continues in front of them. With a large majority of the media being either state-run or outdated, Cambodia is ripe for an online outlet similar to Politico for unbiased, thoughtful, and modern analysis of Khmer politics geared towards a younger generation of media consumers.

This is the realization Ou Ritthy had in 2011. When he started his undergraduate education, he was concerned by the equally toxic grip of alcohol and pop culture on his peer group. Taking the initiative, Ou Ritthy organized discussions at local coffee shops to discuss politics and current events. The platform caught fire, attracted large crowds, and demanded expansion.

Today, the aptly titled group Politikoffee holds weekly discussions attracting up to 300 people and are attended regularly by a core group of 50 members.  Additionally, approximately 400 youth habitually join Politikoffee’s discussions online. Among the active members and discussants, Politikoffee has 30 young independent analysts devoted to creating content to fill the void of thoughtful analysis in Cambodia.  Their goal is to bolster the democratic development in Cambodia through raising awareness of sociopolitical dynamics and promoting a culture of discussion, debate and critical thought.

The International Republican Institute has had the privilege to work with Politikoffee for the past year and has been amazed at the rate of their growth. In May 2016, Politikoffee launched their new sleek website. Not only is the user-face modern, intuitive and clean, the content on their new website continues to provide thoughtful analysis on the day-to-day of Cambodian politics rivaling any established media source in the country.

Politikoffee’s timing could not have been better. Despite making up two-thirds of Cambodia’s population, youth in Cambodia are significantly underrepresented by their government. The dysfunction in the National Assembly continues to produce fierce partisanship, yet elected officials rarely address concerns most pressing to the Cambodian electorate, particularly among youth. Cambodia’s political system has not evolved to match its increasingly young populace, nor the generation’s demand for reliable information.

Unlike John Harris and Jim VandeHei’s scrappy Arlington media company, Politikoffee has the chance to play a foundational role in a country’s democratic evolution. Their commitment to freedom of expression and an open political culture is inspiring for those of us feeling optimistic for Cambodia’s future.

If you’re interested in politics in Southeast Asia, visit Politikoffee and follow this group of young pioneering journalists on Twitter (@Politikoffee), Facebook, and Instagram.

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