Remarks by Ambassador William A. Heidt at the Welcome Dinner for the SUSI/YSEALI Alumni Environment Workshop

(As Prepared for Delivery)
Siem Reap
February 18, 2016

Thank you everyone and good evening. I’m very happy to be with you tonight at the opening dinner of the SUSI and YSEALI Alumni Environment Workshop. I can already sense a lot of energy and enthusiasm among you sixty or so young leaders participating in this workshop.

I am very aware that I am the guy standing between you and your dinner. So I won’t speak too long. But I do want to spend a few moments to thank all of you for coming to Siem Reap and to congratulate you for the work that you are doing to protect, preserve, and educate others about the environment.

Let me first acknowledge some of the key people responsible for this event, in particular the two SUSI alumni who came up with the idea for this workshop back in 2013. They are Mr. Lim Nguon, who is here with us tonight; and Mr. Pheng Meas Sak, who is currently in the United States on a Fulbright Scholarship.

I would also like to thank Ms. Hout Siekhuoy and her team – which includes alumni of SUSI, YSEALI, and members of my own Ambassador’s Youth Council – for the tireless work and passion that you have shown in bringing this workshop to life.

And of course, I would also like to thank our good friends at the East-West Center and the University of Montana’s Mansfield Center. We greatly appreciate your unwavering support and dedication to the youth of this region.

I only want to make three substantive points in my remarks tonight. Two are based on boring – but very important – diplomatic documents. The third is a story from my own career that highlights, I think, why workshops like this are so important.

The first point is an obvious one. This workshop, which is gathering youth from all over ASEAN, is taking place just two days after the first ever U.S. – ASEAN Special Leaders’ Summit in Sunnylands, California. So we are the first official follow-up activity to the summit. Leaders from every country in ASEAN traveled to Sunnylands, and held very substantive discussions on a number of important topics, including the environment.

During the summit, the leaders released a joint statement—that’s the first diplomatic document I spoke about. It lists 17 principles that will guide our cooperation going forward. And what’s interesting is that four of the 17 principles, deal with the environment, climate change, or sustainable development. They reference many of the key economic challenges facing Southeast Asia, and the world at large, like overfishing, wildlife and timber trafficking, and the importance of making progress on each of our country’s plans under the Paris Climate Agreement.

Two other principles talk about the importance of supporting a “people oriented, people centered” ASEAN Community and strengthening “people-to-people connectivity through programs that engage ASEAN and American citizens, particularly young people.”

My point is that although this workshop was planned well before the Summit, its theme “Engage, Empower, Execute” is a perfect fit with the direction ASEAN is heading, and the issues most important to the people and leaders of ASEAN.

My second point has to do with another diplomatic document, the most important environmental agreement in at least a quarter century, last December’s Paris Climate Agreement. We all know about the basic goals of the agreement—holding the increase in global temperatures to below 2 degrees centigrade, increasing the ability of countries to adapt to climate change, and become more resilient, and expanding the financial flows available to developing countries to adapt to climate change and increase the use of sustainable energy.

But what struck me about the Paris Agreement is the extent to which it implicitly relies on today’s youth to achieve our collective climate change goals. It includes long term targets, for the second half of the 20th century, that all of you are going to have to help achieve as you progress through your careers and lives. It envisions periodic reassessments, starting in 2023, so the world can track the progress we are making on our climate pledges. I hope some of you will be involved in these reassessments someday, representing your various countries.

And perhaps most important, the discussion at Paris made clear the important role of youth in educating the world about climate change. A reoccurring topic during the Paris Conference in Paris was that when it comes to issues like climate change, environmental protection, and sustainability, youth should be encouraged to speak up and get involved. That’s a job we all need to get started on now, hopefully beginning with this workshop.

That is the idea behind YSEALI, of course. When President Obama officially launched YSEALI in 2013 as his signature program for youth leadership development and networking in Southeast Asia, it opened a door for young people to take action on key issues like environmental protection, economic development, civic engagement and education. I have met some amazing young people through YSEALI, doing interesting and creative work.

In Cambodia alone, more than 100 YSEALI members have received opportunities to participate in short-term exchange programs in the United States or in ASEAN member states. Others have applied for grants to develop and implement projects in their communities, including on the themes of environment and natural resources. Cambodia’s rich biodiversity and ecosystems make this an ideal location for a workshop on the environment. The country’s precious forests and rivers are home to endangered animals like Asian elephants, Siamese crocodiles, and even freshwater dolphins. However, as in any nation that is developing as rapidly as Cambodia, these and other precious resources often come under threat.

And that brings me to my third point, a story from my own career about resources under threat. It’s hard to imagine now, but back in the late 1990s, when I served my first assignment in Cambodia, there was a restaurant in Phnom Penh that held dozens of wild animals in cages back behind the building. Customers could go out back, chose which animals they wanted to eat, and the restaurant would take care of the rest. There were Asian Sun Bears, several kinds of lizards, crocodiles, and other wild animals. For those of you from Cambodia, this restaurant was a couple of kilometers north of the Japanese bridge on National Highway 6. I remember that it had a very nice view of the river.

Even back then, nearly 20 years ago, there was a small group of young people dedicated to wildlife conservation who felt very strongly that what this restaurant was doing was wrong. And they wanted to stop it. I was the environment officer at the U.S. Embassy back then, and I had a lot of discussions with them about how they might put pressure on the restaurant owner to stop this practice.

But in the end, the step they decided to take was to write a letter to the Prime Minister. They thought other steps – like writing to the restaurant owner, holding a demonstration in front of the restaurant, or getting stories published in the media – either wouldn’t work or would be too dangerous. Now there’s nothing wrong with writing a letter to the Prime Minister. But I couldn’t help but think of how many more options we would have today to take on such a problem. We could start a Facebook campaign. We could even post photos on the Prime Minister’s Facebook page. We could take videos of the wildlife in cages and put them on YouTube. There are many other options.

Or even better, we could link up with young people from neighboring countries at workshops like this one to learn how they might handle a similar challenge. Or perhaps we could band together to jointly put more pressure on that restaurant owner.

And that is one of the main reasons why you are here. I am confident that your participation in this workshop will help you discover new ideas and strategies that will have a real impact on environmental and conservation challenges not just here in Cambodia, but across the region.

I encourage each of you to get all that you can from the workshop sessions, discussions, and site visits over the next few days. Take advantage of the advice given by guest speakers and fellow alumni, but remember to share your own invaluable experience with others as well. Most of all, don’t forget to have fun, make new friends, and build networks that will lead to the achievement of our shared environmental goals.

I guess you probably want to know about what happened to that restaurant. When I left Cambodia in 1999, it was still serving dishes made from wildlife. But a friend wrote me a couple years later to say it had stopped.

Cambodia had implemented the CITES convention, law enforcement had improved, and public attitudes had shifted. I suspect the letter to the Prime Minister and some negative press attention helped too.

So that story ended happily, even if it took a while. But I think there is a very important point here too, especially for young people like you who are just starting out in your careers. The truth is that some things, especially difficult things, take awhile. Success doesn’t always come overnight. But if you persevere, and work hard to find new strategies, you very often can win in the end, like we did with that restaurant in Phnom Penh.

I can see people are really getting hungry now, so I’ll close by once again expressing my appreciation for inviting me to join you tonight. I wish you all the best for this workshop and in your future endeavors. Thank you very much.