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Having graduated from the US with an MA in Security Studies, Bong Chansambath explained the value of understanding security issues for Cambodians and the coming challenges faced. Chansambath is currently Deputy Director of the Centre for Inclusive Digital Economy (CIDE) at the Asian Vision Institute (AVI) and a lecturer at the Department of International Studies (DIS), Royal University of Phnom Penh (RUPP).
Sao Phal Niseiy: You earned an MA from Kansas State University through the Fulbright scholarship, can you talk us through the process of being accepted onto a program that only accepts 10 people annually?
Bong Chansambath: First, allow me to explain briefly about the Fulbright program. Established in 1946, the J. William Fulbright Foreign Student Fellowship is one of the most respected and competitive scholarship programs worldwide, which gives opportunities to international students who wish to pursue a master’s or doctoral degree and a life-changing international travel and intercultural experience in the United States.
Applying for Fulbright requires planning, perseverance and a sprinkle of luck. One needs to hold an undergraduate degree with a commendable academic record, an eligible TOEFL score, relevant professional experience and clear goals of what you want to study: What research you want to conduct while there and what you plan to do in order to foster a better mutual understanding between Cambodia and the United States after the program.
Once you apply, the next step would be the shortlisting and selection interview stage. I would say that the Fulbright interview is a casual process where the panel would ask you about your personal goals, study and career plans, research interest and leadership experience. They would also take the opportunity to test your English language, critical-thinking ability and readiness to live independently in a foreign country.
A few tips for those who either plan to apply or will sit for a Fulbright interview would be to talk to previous grantees to learn their experience, understand the vision and mission of the Fulbright Program, internalize what you have written in your personal statement and study objective essays, but also you should calm yourself down before the interview day because everything is going to be fine whether you make it or not. Life will go on and other opportunities will present themselves eventually if you keep nurturing your dream.
Sao Phal Niseiy: Your higher education has been focused on Security Studies, but what sort of topics do you learn from this and who would benefit from diving into it?
Bong Chansambath: Security Studies is a relatively new and still-developing sub-field of International Relations (IR). It tackles some of the most prominent traditional and non-traditional security challenges facing today’s world, ranging from war, terrorism, ethnic violence, and state-sponsored oppression to nuclear proliferation, transnational organized crimes, human security, and cybersecurity.
Since Kansas State University’s Security Studies program adopts a rigorous interdisciplinary curriculum combining research methods in political science and history, I spent time analyzing key historical events, wars and other global security issues to identify characteristics, patterns, outcomes, and prospects of various types of conflict. Moreover, I delved deeply into classic and contemporary literature written by strategic thinkers such as Sun Tzu, Clausewitz, Alfred Thayer Mahan, Bernard Brodie, Thomas Schelling, and B.H. Liddell Hart.
Security Studies would fit well with fresh graduates or mid-career professionals who want to pursue a job in a research think-tank, national government (defense, foreign policy, and intelligence apparatus), business risk analysis, or academia, to name a few. Although a strong interest in foreign affairs and grand strategy would enable one to fare well in Security Studies, those keen on geopolitics, comparative politics, human rights, peacekeeping, energy, and other IR-related subjects would also find the field a good fit.
Sao Phal Niseiy: Some students may not see how Security Studies fits with a small, developing country like Cambodia, but what are your thoughts on this idea?
Bong Chansambath: Security is the most critical factor in every country’s foreign policy and survival. Either you live in a small state like Cambodia or a big one like the United States, maintaining national security is the first and foremost responsibility of every national leader. Without it, it is hard to realize other objectives such as economic development, education, and healthcare.
Sao Phal Niseiy: Let’s move to your plans for the future—what is your long-term goal considering your expertise and knowledge of security affairs and foreign policy?
Bong Chansambath: Although I entertain the idea of going for a doctoral study in the near future, I primarily focus on doing the best I possibly can for my jobs at AVI and DIS. If overseas opportunities or those in other sectors of Cambodia present themselves in the future, I may give them a shot. Sometimes, life is more interesting when we do not always set a specific plan and let the universe take us where we least expect it.
Sao Phal Niseiy: Also, I wanted to ask what—in your opinion—are the most pressing security challenges Cambodia faces, particularly given the rapid technological developments and geopolitical changes seen in recent years, but also, how can Cambodia address them?
Bong Chansambath: Given Cambodia’s geographical location, relatively small size, history, and resources, it faces a host of security issues, which demand urgent attention simultaneously. That said, if I were to pick three issues that pose grave threats to our country right now and in the next five years, I would say the global pandemic such as COVID-19 and the bifurcation of global geopolitical order into a US-led system, on the one hand, and China-led, on the other; and cyber threats posed by state and non-state actors.
Sao Phal Niseiy: Cybersecurity, in particular, is a concerning and emerging area of security development for Cambodia, what would you recommend for Cambodia to make sure it is prepared for this threat?
Bong Chansambath: To tackle such complicated tasks as cybersecurity threats, both the government and individuals have a role to play. Speaking as a non-IT specialist, I would say that Cambodia needs a few things in its toolbox, such as risk assessment, crisis management plans, education campaigns, collaboration with the relevant stakeholders, and talent acquisition, all of which our government has been working steadfastly to develop over the past years.
To prepare for cyber threats, a government first needs to constantly assess what kind of risks it is facing and identify its current vulnerabilities. It then needs a contingency plan in place in case it comes under actual attacks from either state or non-state actors. Assessment and preparation should go along with an education campaign that educates employees in public and private sectors on protecting their institutions’ data and digital infrastructure from cyberattacks. The campaign should also target the general public since they constitute a large part of data generated on a daily basis.
Collaboration with private firms, research think-tanks, and universities is also crucial since these entities possess expertise in research and development, cybersecurity policy, digital technologies, and others. Cooperation with international partners to strengthen policy dialogues and ties between law enforcement and intelligence agencies enable Cambodia to address emerging threats bilaterally and multilaterally. Likewise, developing professionally trained talents who can assess, plan, and deter posing threats is another major undertaking that requires a long-term plan, resources, and employment opportunities created by the government.
Sao Phal Niseiy: This cannot be concluded without touching upon the change in the geopolitical order and the ongoing great power competition. This comes with unforeseen consequences which can be unfavorable or risky. How can Cambodia minimize the impacts while reaping more benefits from these shifting situations?
Bong Chansambath: First and foremost, Cambodia may continue its hedging foreign policy to avoid choosing a side between the United States and China by emphasizing its commitment to Article 53 of the 1993 Constitution, which stipulates that the country is a permanently neutral and non-aligned nation that values peaceful co-existence with all nations. Likewise, foreign policy diversification enables Cambodia to strengthen its ties with middle-powers such as Australia, India, Japan, South Korea, and the European Union, all of which are key players in the Indo-Pacific region. Diversification also lessens our political and economic dependence on any particular external power.
In addition, membership in ASEAN enables Cambodia to work with fellow member states to shape regional economic and security agendas and foster a rules-based order. Meanwhile, the recently launched economic diplomacy strategy of 2021-2023 and contributions to the United Nations-led peacekeeping operations would bolster our resilience at home and soft power abroad.
Last, foreign policy begins at home. As a developing country, economic development inside its borders should remain on top of the agenda. The progress we have experienced since 1979 is nothing short of remarkable and humbling, although there are still works to be done. We all need to play our parts in transforming Cambodia into an economically inclusive, socially resilient, and technologically advanced nation, which serves as the basis of our neutral and non-aligned foreign policy in the age of major power competition.