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Politics a no-no for university curricula

Politics a no-no for university curricula

Phnom Penh is awash in universities promising degrees to young people in search of

a higher education. The sleek buildings, glossy brochures and the snazzy advertising

appear to offer almost every academic subject imaginable.

But for those interested in understanding politics-and studying theories that explain

how governments work-almost no one is willing to teach them.

There are no universities in Cambodia with a political science department. Although

one school, Paññasastra University of Cambodia (PUC), offers a bachelor's

degree in the subject, it has no department dedicated to the field.

Where then can Cambodians learn, discuss, debate and dissect the meaning of politics?

Some students enroll in the Faculty of Law and Economics (FLE) where the teaching

of constitutional law touches upon contemporary political issues. But, according

to Tep Soran, director of the continuing education office, the field is simply too

abstract to warrant much attention.

"Studying is about scientific research and not analysing, criticising or rejecting,"

he said.

Students can also try joining the department of philosophy at the Royal University

of Phnom Penh (RUPP). But political science is taught either as philosophy or history

rather than as a subject relevant to students' lives. Moreover, the university also

dictates certain regulations on what can be asked in the classroom.

"The university respects all religions and is not political," states the

official policy handbook at RUPP. "Therefore, teachers are required to ensure

that their own political and religious views are not expressed in any manner which

can be construed as attempting to overtly influence students."

What this means in practice, says Ting Leyheng, program coordinator at RUPP, is that

politics are taboo.

"Teachers don't talk about Cambodian politics," he said "We do not

give students a chance to discuss Cambodian politics. That is the way it is and has

always been."

Yet there are unlikely pockets of political debate among the 30 or so schools scattered

about the capital.

A recent controversy arose over an art history assignment at PUC in July. A seemingly

innocuous exercise in artistic expression rapidly transformed into an open political

discussion raising issues of censorship, freedom of speech and political repression.

Students were asked to create their own art based on what they felt was important

to them as Cambodian citizens. When their final projects were displayed on the walls

of the school's campus, their art did what most good art should do-it caught the

eye of other students.

But it also inspired controversy after students were angry about what they saw and

complained to the administration. A soiled Cambodian flag and pictures depicting

corruption were unacceptable for some students. The artworks were taken down after

only one day.

The move created a standoff between art students and the university administration.

According to senior administrators in the university, the timing-two weeks before

the elections- was "just too delicate".

But what followed, said one student whose art was taken down, was "rather remarkable".

Encouraged by their American professor, the students met with directors of the university

on September 12 to discuss the issue for about two hours.

"We agreed to disagree," said one student whose art was removed. "I

stood up and spoke openly. I said my feelings about education, politics, and freedom

for students. I had no fear."

Although the meeting reconciled some student's anger about the school's action, the

art has remained under wraps.

The fact remains that most universities still consider politics strictly prohibited

from the classroom.

At the Royal University of Phnom Penh on October 20, five students sitting on the

main campus were asked about their freedom to debate the country's political standoff

in class. They said they were prohibited from talking about the problems their country

is facing.

"We study philosophy but we have never used our knowledge to try and understand

what is happening today in Cambodian politics," said one of the students. "We

cannot talk in class."

Another student who asked not to be identified was more direct about the oppressive

situation in universities.

"Of course no one can talk openly," he said. "It is too dangerous

for any young person to speak out and say something different or even critical. We

can be harmed."

Professors are left in a precarious situation. Due to the strict policies governing

acceptable subjects, many said they are caught between university policies and their

students' desire to discuss politics.

Ung Rotha, professor of international law at the Faculty of Law and Economics, was

frank about what actually happens in class.

"The teachers set the tone," he said. "No student can start a debate

on politics. If there is a debate it is limited and always within the study of constitutional

law."

He said he restricts his discussion of politics depending on the students.

"In the morning and the afternoon, I can be more open in discussion because

my students are young," he said. "But once the evening students have arrived,

who are mainly civil servants, my teaching and approach in class is different. I

have to consider who is in my class."

Micheal Neville who heads the department of international studies at the University

of Cambodia, characterised talking about Cambodian politics as "walking on egg

shells".

"I tend to stay clear of current politics," he said. "There are unwritten

rules on what to say and what not to stay. As a foreigner, discretion is the word."

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