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US first lady Michelle Obama talks with students at a school in Siem Reap on the weekend during her visit to the Kingdom
US first lady Michelle Obama talks with students at a school in Siem Reap on the weekend during her visit to the Kingdom. ETHAN HARFENIST

Hun Sen knocks Obama visit

Prime Minister Hun Sen took aim at Michelle Obama yesterday, accusing the US first lady of making false promises, while suggesting her visit last weekend was more about hopeful rhetoric rather than implementing concrete improvements in the country’s education sector.

During a speech at the National Institute of Education, Hun Sen told the US Embassy and USAID to make good on alleged scholarship promises and front some actual cash if they want to truly make an impact on education reform in Cambodia. The prime minister was referring to Obama’s visit to the country on Saturday, in which she met with 10 female students in Siem Reap to push the White House’s “Let Girls Learn” initiative.

“Her [Obama’s] mission is very good, but I suggest the United States should help completely and not play like this,” he said. “It is just playing around – it is not good. What if she chose 300 students? It would be death. I don’t have that money to give.”

Hun Sen’s comments came after Education Minister Hang Chuon Naron on Tuesday requested state university scholarships for the 10 girls, whose education through grade 12 is being funded by NGO Room to Read.

Hun Sen said that he provided each student $1,500 per year to go toward their four years at university, but mentioned he was under the impression the US was going to foot the bill for the girls’ education. Now, he said, the Cambodian Ministry of Education was left to pay for them.

“I thought the United States would give scholarships to those students until they complete university, but that’s not [the case],” Hun Sen said. “I had strongly hoped [that was the situation], but she just came here to choose people and then [left] it to the Ministry of Education.”

The prime minister stated that it was not his intention to slight the US, though he was concerned that the Let Girls Learn initiative was simply a way for the US to take credit for reform while publicly critiquing the Cambodian government.

“I am sorry … but this is just my opinion,” said Hun Sen. “It will become a political matter in the long term. The children will say in the future that the US assisted them in completing university, while Hun Sen will be known as a man who doesn’t work.”

US Embassy spokesman Jay Raman yesterday denied that Michelle Obama had made any pledges regarding scholarships, stressing that the Let Girls Learn initiative was primarily focused on breaking down barriers to education by promoting awarewness of access inequalities.

Raman also stressed that “it’s not just about awareness, but also action, particularly through USAID programs that support girls’ education and at the community level through our Peace Corps volunteers and their local counterparts”.

Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Independent Teachers Association, reiterated the symbolic value of Obama’s visit, saying that Hun Sen’s comments would provide no positive results for Cambodia’s ailing education sector.

“I think Michelle Obama’s visit was of high value for Cambodia, and reminded the country to pay strong attention to education,” he said. “The comments made by Prime Minister Hun Sen will not benefit Cambodia, and he should have not used a mocking tone despite the fact the [program] will not provide [direct] access to university. He is the prime minister; he must take responsibility for education.”

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