Her Excellency Eat Sophea builds links with Cambodia’s neighbours
Senior Diplomat, Excellency Eat Sophea, is keen for more Cambodian women to aim for future employment that makes best use of their skills and studies – and to work consistently to achieve their career goals.
Her Excellency, who is currently Under Secretary of State at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, has recently returned from Bangkok, where she spent the past three years as the Cambodian Ambassador to Thailand.
“When I was growing up, my father encouraged all of his children to aim high, whether we were girls or boys”, Excellency Sophea said.
“And I’ve also been fortunate to have a supportive husband who, from time to time, has been prepared to take family responsibility, so I could pursue my career.”
While not being a house-husband, Sophea’s husband also worked for the Cambodian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation of Cambodia and later the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta.
Sophea studied her Masters in Public Policy and Administration at Flinders University in Adelaide, in 2003 and 2004.
Born in Phnom Penh, she grew up surrounded by eight siblings, and her mother – a housewife, and her father - a Civil Servant whose last career before retirement was also with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Cambodia..
Sophea has two children of her own – both girls, and now in their twenties and pursuing their own studies and careers.
In high school in Phnom Penh, Sophea did well in all subjects and enjoyed them all.
“For quite a while I wanted to be a fashion designer – until I was about 20”, she explained.
Starting in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation in 1985, where her role was to prepare news briefings for senior personnel and the Minister, she found that her English Language skills were quickly improving.
Until 1990, Sophea worked in the Information Bureau of the Ministry; where most linkages being established by Cambodia were with Eastern Bloc countries.
In 1994, she was posted to India, as Second Secretary to the Cambodian Embassy in New Delhi.
“The Cambodian Embassy there did not have many staff, so I found myself doing lots of different jobs… - a Jill of all trades”, she joked.
In spite of her full-time job at the Embassy and two small kids to care, Sophea managed to make herself computer literate and obtained a post graduate degree in International Law and Diplomacy. After completing her posting in India in 1997, she returned to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation to work in the Department responsible for European Affairs.
She was soon promoted to the East Asia Desk in the Ministry’s Asia-Pacific Department, and before much longer, to Deputy Director of a Department.
Sophea went to Australia for her study without her husband, who was then working in Indonesia, and looking after their two young daughters at the same time.
“And although I missed my daughters and husband terribly, it was wonderful to experience a whole new environment in Australia and to learn about the Australian way of life.”
“Flinders is an excellent university, and Adelaide was very comfortable - and if I ever had any problems, the Australian Government would help me.”
Back in Phnom Penh in August 2004, she was appointed to the demanding job of Chief of the Minister’s Office – a position she held for almost eight year, and one which, in retrospect, she thinks may have meant being too long in the one job.
“Our neighbouring countries are very important to Cambodia”, she said. “So I was pleased when I was appointed as Ambassador to Thailand in 2014.”
Returning to Phnom Penh from Bangkok in early 2017, Sophea is not in a hurry to take up another overseas posting for a while – and is currently responsible for Central, South and East Asia and Oceania section of the Ministry, which includes Australia.
For other Cambodians considering applying for an Australia Award, she advises them to think carefully before they do.
“You may miss your family, but at least you can focus on your studies and more easily achieve your post-graduate degree objective.”
Sophea continues to use the skills, contacts and increased confidence in herself that she learned in Australia “every day” in her work with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation.
And what has she planned for her future when she decides to eventually retire from being a diplomat?
“The idea of being a fashion designer is still at the back of my mind”, she said.
“Perhaps I could use my Award skills and my own experience to establish a fashion business that can employ Cambodians fairly, and contribute in another way to my country’s development.”
Sophea wants to be a “part of the solution” to inequality
Being raised in a family from a fairly poor background, where the little available money had to go a long way, is just one factor that led to Soung Soksophea’s career in working with needy children and adults.
Born in Phnom Penh in 1983, Sophea completed her Masters’ in Public Policy at the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra, in 2011.
As Senior Campaign Manager for “World Vision International” in Cambodia, Sophea is using many of the technical expertise and “soft” skills she gained while undertaking her Australia Award studies at ANU.
Sophea was the eldest in a close-knit family, with one brother and one sister. Her mother, now a widow after her father passed away more than 10 years ago, was her “hero”.
“I learned a lot from both my mother and my father”, Sophea explained.
“That knowledge and understanding helped a lot when I began working with street children in my spare time, while studying for my Bachelor’s degree at Pannasastra University of Cambodia (PUC).
“A Canadian lecturer there at the time told me about the street-children’s charity ‘Friends International Organisation’, so I visited them and signed up as a volunteer.”
Growing up in central Phnom Penh, at age seven, she went to a primary school (Chaktomuk) near the Royal Palace.
Her mother would check Sophea’s schoolbooks at the end of each day, reminding her always of the importance of gaining an education.
Although an outstanding student herself, her mother’s dreams of higher education were not possible during the Khmer Rouge years.
“Even my grandfather, although poor, realised the importance of education; as a boy he used to read and study in the pagoda, by the light of an incense stick.”
Always keen to learn even when very young, Sophea used to follow her aunts and uncles as they went to local English classes, and borrowed their text books at night to improve her language skills. In Junior High School, she started learning English formally as part of school curriculum.
Although initially looking for a future career as a science researcher, she also considered becoming a lawyer.
“I may not have known how to argue logically, but I certainly could talk a lot”, she laughed.
When enrolling at PUC, a new university at that time, Sophea wasn’t sure about whether she should study law or literature. Eventually she decided on an Economic Degree, only to swap to International Relations part-way through.
And with her mother’s savings, some support from her uncle, and taking time off to earn money for her studies during the eight years she was enrolled at PUC, Sophea finally finished her Bachelor of International Relations in 2007. Since 2002, she worked as a travel consultant for a UK based travel agency for two years and moved to work in the ‘International Organisation’ office – as a public relations / communications officer.
Sophea applied for an Australia Award in 2008, but was not successful in that year because her English language scores were not good enough.
For the next year, she studied English day and night to improve her language skills -and applied again in 2009 - successfully.
“It wasn’t easy when I first arrived in Australia. I missed my Mum, although we skyped quite often, but I started to make friends – from all over the world”, Sophea said.
“Initially, university in Australia was very challenging; I just could not produce high quality work, and although I did participate well in lectures, seminars and tutorials, I had problems with the writing side of things.”
“In fact, in Australia, I first lost my confidence, but then I gained it again.”
Sophea soon found a good friend who worked in the Australian Government’s Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet – a friendship still going strong six years later.
With many new friends, and staying at a school dormitory in Canberra with some Cambodia classmates, she soon rebuilt her confidence.
”We came to an agreement in our shared meals”, Sophea explained. “They would cook and I would clean because I had no idea how to cook when I left Cambodia.
“By the time I came back I was a better cook and so I used to joke that I came back with two separate Master’s degrees – a Master of Public Policy and a Masters of Chef-ing.”
When she first returned to Cambodia, Sophea found it hard to get a job. The employment market was very competitive and she had lost the networks she had established before leaving for her Australia Award.
She worked as a consultant for a while, but found that the role did not really suit her, so in 2013 she took up a position in the senior management team of “Save the Children” in Cambodia, as their Advocacy Adviser.
And although this role – spending half her time in the office and the other half in the field – strengthened her commitment to working with disadvantaged people, she found that she could not use the skills and experience she had gained in Australia as much as she would have liked to.
So, in early 2015, she moved to her current position with World Vision.
Sophea advises anyone considering applying for an Australia Award to know exactly what they want to study and why.
In discussions with potential applicants, she emphasises the importance of the new skills she gained in Australia – particularly in critical and strategic thinking, and in impact effectiveness.
“In the future, I would like to eventually move into the Social Enterprise and Fair Trade area – perhaps looking at livelihood development, in agriculture focusing on small scale or family agriculture and home grown vegetable, even though I lack of knowledge and experience in the sector. I would also like to teach at a school and to be an advocate for social justice.”
“From the start, I always wanted to be part of the solution to inequality in Cambodia…”
“And that hasn’t changed at all”, Sophea said.
Australia Awards’ graduate Im Phalla returned to Cambodia in 2001 after completing his MBA at the University of Queensland.
Australia Awards’ graduate Im Phalla returned to Cambodia in 2001 after completing his MBA at the University of Queensland.
Since then, Phalla has made the most of his newly acquired skills in business, establishing successful businesses in Cambodia in investment and business consultancy and wine importing and wholesaling – and has still had time to complete another Master’s degree at the Yokohama National University – and be married!
“Going to Australia for my scholarship was my very first experience of travelling and studying overseas”, Phalla said.
“My friends in Australia said that I looked like a “lost child” when I first arrived. I admit that I was a bit stressed and overwhelmed by the whole experience.”
Nevertheless, Phalla believes that Brisbane was the best place for him, as the other city options such as Sydney and Melbourne would have been too big, and created too many distractions from his studies.
“But living in Brisbane also made me go beyond my comfort zone. I had to make and mix with a much wider group of friends than if I had been in other cities where there were already large Cambodian communities.”
However, he sees both the up and down sides of being away from other Cambodians while studying in a different country.
“Sure, it’s comfortable to have people around you who have the same language and like the same food, but when you have to face the challenges of cultural isolation, you are challenged – and simply have to succeed.”
Phalla was born into a farming family in the small Traeng District in Cambodia’s Takeo Province. The Province, bordering Vietnam in the south, is often called the cradle of Cambodian civilisation, as the province has several important pre-Angkorian sites built between 1300 and 1500 years ago.
He studied at the local primary school in Traeng, but when he was about eight or nine, his parents sent him into Phnom Penh to stay with his aunt and uncle, and to study in a larger and more challenging school than the one in their village.
“I was one of four other brothers and sisters, and my parents decided that I was too skinny to make a good farmer… so I had better get an education to survive”, he laughed.
At school, Phalla was not much of a scientist, but he did like literature and mathematics. He clearly excelled in these areas as, for the last three years of his secondary schooling, he was selected into a special class in Santhor Mok high school, intended to give gifted students the opportunity to “shine”.
Then, in his mid-teenage years, Phalla wasn’t too sure about what he wanted to with his life, but, “I did know I wanted to become a businessman… I wasn’t sure what type, simply a businessman.”
In 1993, he was awarded a scholarship to the National University of Management in Phnom Penh, to study for his Bachelor’s degree in Marketing; and as soon as he was part-way through that degree, he also began a second Bachelor’s degree – in Law… and had completed both by 1997.
“I was lucky with timing”, he explained. “In 1993, it was just at the start of the period when education was reformed and made more accessible to the children of poor families.”
“Before that, you would be the child of more wealthy parents to be able to study at the university .”
According to Phalla, the small scholarship he received from the Government was not enough to survive on. Although his fees were met, he (and other students) received a stipend of only a few dollars each month.
His parents and his aunt and uncle helped him in any way they could, to ensure he could concentrate on his studies. “Without their support, I would not have succeeded at all.”
In his final two years at the National University of Management, Phalla’s horizons were broadened when visiting American lecturers were assigned to his university. That early taste of what the world could offer in terms of a wider education encouraged Phalla, and he started to plan how he could gain a scholarship once he had graduated from university in Cambodia.
With his Bachelor’s degrees “in his pockets”, he applied for and got a job in a Cambodian Government agency, hearing there about the (then AusAID) Australia Awards.
He was told, however, that he was too young to apply for a scholarship in Australia, and besides, he hadn’t been working for very long. Already showing his determined personality even at this young age, Phalla decided he would still try for an Australia Award.
He studied hard for the interview and worked hard on his English language skills – and surprised his work colleagues by winning an Australia Award at his first attempt.
He spent 1999 refining his English language, study and research skills and in the first year of the new century, travelled to Brisbane to begin his MBA.
“My studies in Australia showed me the opportunities available in Cambodia and elsewhere. “They (studies) opened the door to the rest of the world.”
As well as building his existing skills in business and management, Phalla also gained much-needed self-confidence.
My approach was – and still is – that I may not necessarily know the answer, but I do know the answer can be found somewhere.”
Determined to make the most of his scholarship opportunity, Phalla would spend most of his walking hours at the St Lucia Campus of the University of Queensland.
When he first arrived in Australia, his English skills weren’t as good as they could have been, so for his first semester, he did nothing else except study hard and to try to improve his language skills.
“It was a bit of a shock to come from Cambodia where our educational standards weren’t as high as Australia”, he explained. And he also had to learn how to make the most of the many opportunities Australia’s internet access now gave him.
“When I left Phnom Penh for Australia, there was only a single Internet Café in the city”, he laughed.
Back in Phnom Penh two years later in 2001, Phalla worked across all employment sectors in Cambodia – government, civil society, donor agencies, and the private sector.
Phalla realised that his Australian studies had opened up the horizon for him, so he started looking around for other ways to extend his expertise and skill base even further.
He heard about human resource development scholarships being offered by the Japanese Government – the Japanese Development Scholarships (JDS), at Master’s level also.
And although told that the JDS program was intended to be accessed only by Bachelor degree graduates who had not yet completed a Masters program overseas, Phalla was able to convince the program administrators that his planned study topic – Post-war Reconstruction had particular relevance both for Japan and Cambodia.
His argument clearly worked and he was awarded a scholarship to undertake his studies in Japan between 2004 and 2006.
With an increasing group of both Cambodian and international friends when back in Cambodia, Phalla made the most of his business acumen, and after a period working with donors and in a Phnom Pen law firm, he started the first of his businesses – concentrating on commercial laws.
With a few successful businesses now behind him, Phalla is keen to help and advise young Cambodians thinking of applying for an Australia Award.
“You must be well prepared”, he tells them, “both in terms of the discipline you plan to study and also in relation to English skills.”
“Cambodia today is much more competitive than it was when I gained an Australia Award, so don’t underestimate how many other people will be out there also trying to change their lives through a scholarship.”
And in an increasingly competitive Cambodia, Phalla believes that Australia Awards should be promoted in the country’s secondary schools, so that potential applicants have time to prepare to build and make the most if their skills when it is time to apply after their Bachelor’s degree.
“It may sound too soon to start worrying about international study and a postgraduate degree when in high school, but if you are successful in gaining an Award, and if you can survive your studies in Australia and graduate with a Master’s degree, life will become much easier.”
As well as his MBA-gained skills in business, and having gained “soft skills” such as team leading, communicating, writing and negotiating, Phalla is particularly impressed with the increased confidence his Australia Award gave him.
“I was a lonely boy before I travelled to Australia”, he said. “But just after I came back I remember an old friend saying to me ‘you are different person since you came back from Australia’ – I had gained much confidence.”
“I personally appreciate and value very much the scholarship Australia gave me”, he said. Without that, I would not have succeeded as well as I have today… This sort of experience simply cannot be bought.”
Vision for improving public services in Cambodia
Secretary of State for the Ministry of Civil Service Mr. Youk Bunna, who completed his Master’s in Business Administration (MBA) in 2005 at Monash University, has a vision for an improved public service sector in Cambodia.
The Ministry of Civil Service of Cambodia is the policy implementing arm of the Royal Government of Cambodia (RGC), and the Ministry of Civil Service recently outlined three core strategies for administrative reform in the country:
- strengthening the quality and delivery of public services;
- strengthening the management and development of human resources; and
- further reforming the compensation regime of civil servants.
Born in Kampong Cham province, a fertile and busy centre for trade and transportation, alongside the Mekong River, and around 120 kilometres north of Phnom Penh, Mr. Youk Bunna completed his primary and secondary schooling in Kampong Cham.
Growing up in Kampong Cham Province, he was part of a large family – with three sisters and a brother. His father, a civil servant himself, and his mother, a small businessperson, encouraged all of their children to study and work hard at school.
“I always liked mathematics and literature in Primary School”, Mr. Youk Bunna explained.
“I seemed to be good at problem solving, so perhaps that set the pattern for my later studies.”
After graduating from secondary school, he had the opportunity to enrol at the Institute for Foreign Languages, or to study law at the Royal University of Law and Economics (RULE) in Phnom Penh.
Although a difficult decision, he chose to study Law at RULE, as he felt it would offer him greater career opportunities in the future.
He then won an overseas scholarship to complete his degree – in Law and Public Administration at Lyon, and after three years in France, returned to his old university as a lecturer, while also working as an assistant to the Secretary-General of the Cambodian Investment Board.
“But I felt that I needed to extend my economic skills, and although I learned a lot about European and French law in Lyon, I also wanted to gain experience in ‘anglo-saxon’ based law – so study in Australia seemed to me to be the best option to gain that expertise.”
“And at the same time, it would give me the opportunity to improve my English skills.”
Travelling to Australia in early-2004, his wife soon gave birth in Melbourne to their second child, a daughter.
“I was very happy in Australia”, he explained, “and I was very impressed with the way Australia delivered its services to the public.”
“People were very friendly and we were living in a very multicultural community in Melbourne; and although I was busy with my Masters studies, my wife had many opportunities to go to English classes, and to volunteer at the local Community Centre”.
Mr. Youk Bunna advises potential Australia Award scholarship applicants to prepare carefully if they want to get the maximum benefit from their studies.
“Firstly, you need to determine your objective for the future; secondly, have a thorough assessment of what you are doing right now.”
“Then choose a university and a course that will help you achieve your vision – but make sure it is line with your capacity.”
According to Mr. Youk Bunna, some Australia Award applicants chose a course and institution for all the wrong reasons - such as where their friends are, or choosing a city simply because they have heard a lot about it in the media.
“It cannot be just a dream… Building your capacity will not happen in just a year or two; it takes time.”
In planning his own Australian Award studies, he clearly identified his own knowledge and expertise gaps, and realised that he had to build his capacity in management and administration.
That self-awareness convinced him of the need to undertake thorough research about relevant courses in Australian universities.
Now that he has achieved most of his personal goals, he wants to implement the Cambodian Government’s vision for the public service.
“Now that I have a responsible part of public administration reform, I want to contribute my efforts to improving government services to the people of Cambodia.”
“I want to see our country catch up with others in the region, and to implement reforms that I saw had worked well in developed countries such as France and Australia.”
“But,” he added, “We have to start right now.”
Another Australian National University (ANU) graduate working in a senior position in the Ministry of Environment has managed to blend his commitment to a better environment with his love of, and studies in Economics.
His Excellency (HE), Ken Serey Rotha, currently Deputy Director General in the Ministry, originally wanted to be an Economist, but ended up studying Hydro Engineering at the Institute of Technology of Cambodia. At the time of his studies, the Institute was named the “Cambodia-Russian Friendship Higher Technical Institute”.
HE completed his Australia Award Doctoral studies over two years 2012-2104, in Canberra. His Australian scholarship was his second such honour; his first scholarship course was also completed at ANU, but in that case his Master’s studies were funded by the WWF.
As soon as he returned from his WWF scholarship in 2007, he applied to do more studies – this time through an Australia Award.
“This was my dream”, he explained “… and I am pleased to say that I made it happen.”
“I always wanted to combine Agriculture and Economics in my career, and to help people understand just how important the study and use of Environmental Economics really is.”
Not only does his role in the Ministry mean that His Excellency helps decision makers to make choices about the environment, but he also sees his broader goal as ensuring that future generations “will benefit from the actions and decisions we make now”.
And lecturing to young people on the topic of Environmental Economics provides a further opportunity for him to spread his message… “I like to share my ideas with my younger colleagues, and much of that knowledge comes from my studies in Australia, and from other experiences.”
HE identified positive changes in people’s perceptions of the environment in Cambodia.
“If you’d asked me about the future of environmental management in our country two years ago, my response would have been very different’, he said.
“But now I think that communities and the government are aware of the need for sustainable economic growth and development.”
HE Ken Serey Rotha believes that one of the keys to Cambodia’s continuing development, especially when it requires foreign investment, is reliable sources of power.
“Cambodia is now at the stage where it has to make a decision about investments in hydro power; we need to accept greater industrialisation to progress the country, and this requires us to be realistic.”
And at a personal level, what does the future hold for this important and busy senior expert?
“Perhaps more studies if my family let me”, he laughed.
“I’m a workaholic”, he said. “My parents often say to me that they haven’t seen me for six months… I must be a terrible son”, he joked.