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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Border camp diploma ruling impasse upsets students

Border camp diploma ruling impasse upsets students

Former students who gained high school certificates in the border refugee camps have

complained that the government no longer recognizes their qualifications. The students,

who were among hundreds of thousands of refugees repatriated during the past 10 years,

say that they have had their ambitions thwarted.

"I feel shocked and stunned. I am in despair. My dream of accessing higher education

has been shattered," said Mith Samonn. "I struggled for almost 10 years

to save money to afford a university education."

Samonn, 31, studied while at Sok San camp, which at the time was under the control

of the anti-Communist, anti-Vietnamese-occupation Khmer People's National Liberation

Front led by Son San.

On July 16, Samonn went to the Phnom Penh Municipality to have his diploma examined

to allow him to continue private study at the Pannasatra University of Cambodia in

Phnom Penh. He was told that the municipality no longer recognized border diplomas,

and that his high school diploma was considered equivalent only to Grade 12. He appealed

to the government to assist people in his position.

"I am concerned that my university diploma will not be recognized when I finish

studying," Samonn said. "This decision means that people will lose the

opportunity for higher education and jobs."

Under the 1991 Paris Peace Accords the Cambodian government agreed to recognize qualifications

earned in the border camps. This was meant to help revive the education system and

help reintegrate returned refugees.

Students in the camps could qualify for high school diplomas and even bachelors degrees,

which were later accepted by the Ministry of Education (MoE) as equivalent to those

issued in Cambodia. These certificates entitled the returnees to attend schools and

universities, and were recognized by local employers.

In 1997 officials suspended the recognition program after finding that fake certificates

from border camps had flooded the market, said Pok Than, Secretary of State of the

Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport.

Roth Sokha, Director of the Department of Higher Education in the MoE, said that

among the 63 diplomas sent to the department by students, the ministry had found

that 40 were fake.

Rather than invalidate the fake diplomas, the MoE sent a letter to the Council of

Ministers (CoM) in December, 1997 asking that it rule all border camp qualifications

invalid.

"We don't have the ability to revise the border certificates because we don't

have a base checklist," Sokha said. "We believed that from that time, no

more students would be coming back to school. It was difficult to revise the certificates."

The CoM agreed to the request in February, 1998.

Since then the number of applications requesting that the MoE recognize the high

school diploma has increased. Acknowledging that there was a problem, the MoE sent

two further letters to the council in September, 1999 and February, 2000 requesting

that it come up with a solution allowing education officials to lift the ban.

"We are awaiting a decision from the CoM. After we receive that, we will publicly

announce that the MoE will recognize the diplomas of those students who want to return

to school,"said Sokha, adding: "I don't know why [their decision] is so

late."

When the Post contacted the CoM, spokesman Khieu Thavika said that the council would

not make any new decision to recognize the border diplomas as it had been seven years

since the repatriation took place.

"Why is there still a problem with the diplomas?" Thavika asked.

He added that the MoE could discuss recognizing the diplomas with its private school

partners. Thavika said that the council could not itself revise the border diplomas

because the cabinet did not know whether diplomas were real or fake.

"The ministry has the authority to make a decision on the issue. It has the

knowledge to ensure the border certificates are not fake," Thavika said.

Dr Lao Mong Hay, a former director of Site 2's Institute of Public Administration

and now the Executive Director of the Khmer Institute for Democracy, said that as

a main principle of the Paris Peace Accord was repatriation, all existing education

systems ought to be integrated.

He said the current impasse meant that the MoE risked being labeled discriminatory

and abusive of human rights. Dr Lao added that the border diplomas must be recognized

to allow students the opportunity to continue with their education based on their

ability.

"The dismissal of the border diplomas is an obstacle to national reconciliation.

I do not agree with putting this difficulty in the way [of the students]," he

said.

Dr Lao added that he was not surprised at this flaw in the integrated education system,

because it remains strongly under the control of the ruling CPP, as a result of its

origins during the communist era.

He said that the best solution would be for the fake certificates to be properly

investigated; the problem could be solved through the confirmation of signatures

from other diplomas from the camp.

Dr Lao said that many high ranking officials currently serving in the government

are in possession of refugee camp qualifications, including Heng Vong Bunchhath,

Ieng Muly and Son Soubert.

"How can we attain national unity if we do not recognize each other?" Dr

Lao asked. "I agree that there was a problem with fake certificates, but the

authorities ought to find and punish [the wrong-doers] in order not to harm those

who carry real diplomas."

Cloeur Moeun and Proeung Channa, the students from a former Son San faction, were

among those who were prevented from gaining higher education in early 1999 for this

reason.

"Our diplomas were denied, although we were told that if we paid about $500

we could possibly get a new one," said Proeung Channa.

Samonn, who was told in July that his diploma was invalid, said the reason behind

the problem was discrimination. He said that he and his friends had suffered under

a corrupt education system.

"If the government cannot help us, then it should not block [a solution]. What

it is doing is politically motivated, because it does not want us to integrate into

society. This treatment between the refugees and locals is unfair," he said.

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