Sam Ath* has attended two Cambodian People’s Party rallies during this election campaign. Both times, he claims, his university had paid him to do so.
And both times, the 23-year-old adds, administrative managers at his school – the privately owned Cambodia International Cooperation Institute in Phnom Penh – have organised buses to take him there.
“The institute’s administration has told students [in class] to come and register as volunteers for CPP rallies,” he said this week. “We were promised $4 to attend a rally. If the rally clashed with our classes, we were promised to be marked present on the attendance sheet.”
Following each rally, Sam Ath said, administrative staff personally handed him money – but not as much as first promised.
“I have joined two rallies. But I received only $2.50 the first time and about $2 the second time,” he said.
A fellow student, Seang*, who, like Sam Ath, feared the consequences of being identified, corroborated the allegations.
“I don’t know why the school’s administrative staff urged us to get involved in CPP rallies,” he said.
Unlike Sam Ath, however, Seang has refused to attend election campaigning. “For me, I don’t think this is a good idea,” he said. “Some students have volunteered to get involved because they need the money. Even my friends have volunteered.”
During a face-to-face interview on Tuesday, an official from CICI – who told the Post not to use his name – declined to respond to the allegations.
He referred all questions to the institute’s director, who also did not comment.
Since election campaigning began in late June, thousands of youths have taken to the streets of the capital, flags in hand, to rally for their party.
On multiple occasions, young campaigners have told the Post they were being paid to attend. For such supporters, who invariably sported CPP hats, $5 has been the going rate.
“We came here with a team leader from our class,” said one young woman, a student at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, during a rally last week. “The teacher appointed them to make sure we came.”
But the young woman and her friends said they had received no threats or undue pressure to come — in fact, they were fans of Prime Minister Hun Sen — but admitted not knowing much about politics.
At the same CPP rally in Wat Botum Park, a student at the Cambodia University for Specialties said he had attended purely for the cash.
“My school will pay me $5 when I get back,” he said.
When contacted yesterday, staff at both universities said they weren’t in positions to comment, while the Ministry of Education could not be reached.
But a number of students the Post interviewed outside RUPP on Tuesday said they had not heard of any staff or leaders giving orders for students to join rallies.
At the National University of Management, near Wat Phnom, coercion has been much more subtle, Sopheak, a tourism student, said.
“Some of my friends who learn in the morning have said their teacher encouraged them to get involved with CPP rallies. But my teacher hasn’t done this,” he said.
But Chanboth, a banking and finance student, said her class had been given a lesson in how to campaign for the ruling party.
“My teacher urged us to join CPP rallies when we have free time. Some of my classmates have volunteered to join, but I haven’t.”
The university could not be reached for comment.
National Election Committee secretary-general Tep Nytha said yesterday it was illegal for teachers in public schools and universities to use class time to encourage students to join rallies.
“Out of hours, they can do it,” he said.
But private universities – such as CICI – are exempt from the election law, Nytha added.
“So the owner of the university can encourage their students to get involved with his party.”
This, however, didn’t mean they could pay them to do so.
“We haven’t, however, seen any cases of bribery during this election.”
But Nytha added that it was difficult to tell sometimes whether teachers or leaders of student groups were paying for petrol and food for the students – which “isn’t bribery” – or just paying them money.
While universities are, in theory, meant to be teaching students how to think independently, Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said persuading students to attend particular rallies was common.
What’s more, it was limiting academic freedom.
“[Therefore], it’s also limiting critical thinking, and generally limiting knowledge and education,” he said.
But it’s not just students being pressured — because the CPP wanted to been seen as the “public party”, professors, too, were expected to show support for the ruling party, Virak said.
At the Asia Euro University in Tuol Kork district, four photos of Prime Minister Hun Sen are plastered on the walls of the office that Seang Sovann, a personal adviser to the institute’s rector, shares with others. A fifth photo of the premier covers a clock face.
Asia Euro’s rector, Duong Leang, is vice-president of the Cambodian Higher Education Association, a group known for openly supporting the government’s policies on education.
But Sovann said that teaching staff at the university do not preach politics and the university encourages its students to make their own decisions about politics.
“The students have the ability and opportunities to choose. Our school just teaches them skills.”
Students should focus on a party that will bring them “peace and development”, Sovann added. “They are the bamboo shoots of Cambodia. If they don’t think about their future and their role, how can they develop the country?”
Using very similar parlance, CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap denied his party had a policy of paying university students to rally.
“The CPP has explained to people about its policy and told its youth about their right … in order to encourage them to understand how to develop the country,” he said, also describing youths as the Kingdom’s “bamboo shoots”.
Yeap added that Hun Sen’s lengthy speeches at graduation ceremonies were the only political advice students were given on campus.
“The CPP has no policy of supporting volunteers to get to rallies. But some have problems with their motorbikes and receive support from fellow supporters,” he said.
“Some supporters are poor and hungry. Some fellow supporters can buy them food — bread or water — to share. This is not buying their support. This is the kindness of the Khmer people.”
Yeap said, however, that he could not guarantee that everyone who attended a CPP rally had come along for free.
“But I can say 98 per cent are volunteers,” he added, declining to elaborate.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY CHEANG SOKHA
*Names have been changed to protect identities