Australia Awards – Cambodia

Ms Touch Sopharath Director, Mekong Cooperation Department, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation
Updated: November 2016

Critical thinking skills help manage key Mekong relationships

Touch Sopharath is a senior member of Cambodia’s Diplomatic Service in the role of Director of the Mekong Cooperation Department, within the Cambodian Government’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation.

“When I was young, I wanted to be a lawyer; that was my childhood dream”, she explained.

“But I soon found out that I was not very good at arguing – so I changed my dream!”

Although Sopharath’s parents both came from large families of eight or nine children, her own parents – government officers in the law and education sectors – decided to have only a small family, especially after facing the many problems they and other Cambodians experienced during the war.

Born in Phnom Penh, after secondary school Sopharath studied Law at Norton University, Cambodia’s first private university, in Phnom Penh.

Students at the new university were often taught by Russian lecturers and were expected to study hard and succeed, while also asked to do work around the university.

“After I graduated with my Law Degree, I took a break from study for two years, but I knew I would go back to university to do more study before much longer”, she said.

Sopharath next applied for a place at the Royal Public Administration School, which teaches a wide range of subjects and courses to civil servants. She spent two years at the School studying Diplomacy, while living on a stipend of just $75 each month.

Offered a position in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation after graduating from the School in 2004, Sopharath had already decided that she would need to study internationally if she was to progress towards achieving her new dream of a career in diplomacy.

After being supported by her Ministry to complete the ELMO program (English Language for Women Ministry Officials), she decided to apply for a Master’s scholarship in Australia.

“I was successful, and when I’d completed more English studies as part of the Australia Awards Pre-departure Training (PDT) program, I departed for Australia in 2009 with my young daughter - ready to start studying at the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra.”

“I experienced a bit if culture shock”, she said. “My first thought was that Canberra was boring, but I soon established many friends, took up bicycle riding and enjoyed summer afternoon barbecues.”

“And even when I became dismayed and worried about my work, my Professor at ANU encouraged me to continue and supported me.”

In Canberra, Sopharath was the only Cambodian living in her building. With an intensive Master’s course at ANU, she didn’t have much time to make too many Australian friends - but her goal is to return to Australia one day as a Cambodian diplomat.

Since returning to Cambodia, Sopharath finds that she regularly uses the skills she gained during her Australian studies – especially critical thinking skills.

“Cambodian students are not very good at critical thinking at my age because we were not trained in this critical and analysis as the student in the next generation.” “I can now think more critically and also that skill translates across into all areas of work.”

Before moving into her current position as Director of Mekong Cooperation Department which responsible for various cooperation between Cambodia (member of Mekong countries) and partner countries includes China, India, Japan, Republic of Korea, the United States, European Union, ADB etc, a department proud of its many skilled and competent young women, Sopharath was responsible for bilateral relations with Japan and Republic of Korea when she was deputy director of Mekong Cooperation Department of Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation.

In her current role she is responsible for managing the staff and work of the Department, including writing briefings and reports, convening high-level meetings, and preparing Ministerial submissions.

“My post-graduate degree in International Affairs from Australia has allowed me to gain my current positon and to succeed in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation”, she said.

“It’s important to note, though, that the challenges of a busy job where I often travel away twice each month means that my children, currently six and 16, don’t get to spend enough time with me.”


The English Language Training Scholarships for Female Ministry Officials (ELMO) part-time English language training program had been conducted for many years, offering placements for up to 60 placements annually from those public sector Ministries aligned with DFAT’s Country Program Strategy for Cambodia. The Equity Pathways Program replaced ELMO in 2015.