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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Elite research school eyes growth as dark clouds loom

Elite research school eyes growth as dark clouds loom

The Centre for Khmer Studies is building a new research centre and library as part of a plan to raise its international profile and expand its resources

Photo by: ELEANOR AINGE ROY

Studying in the public library of the Centre for Khmer Studies.

The Center for Khmer Studies (CKS) is situated on the lush grounds of Wat Damnak, in central Siem Reap.

At any time of the day students can be found nestled in the cool of its library, talking quietly beneath the shady trees, or taking walks around the peaceful gardens.

It is a setting perfectly suited to rigorous scholarship - which is exactly what the Centre for Khmer Studies is hoping to foster among Cambodia's postgraduate students.

More broadly, the centre aims to promote Cambodia and Southeast Asia as a destination for international scholars and academics.

But black clouds are gathering on the horizon for the centre, with three of their major grants expiring. CKS director Michael Sullivan thinks that with the economic crisis it is unlikely they will be renewed.

"We are going to stick with our model, as we believe it's a good one," said Sullivan. "We are taking a top-down approach, and the ultimate aim is to get these trained graduates back into Cambodian universities and build up a research culture in Cambodian universities, which is presently lacking."

The ultimate aim is to get these trained graduates back into cambodian universities.

CKS is a nongovernmental organisation founded in 1999 with support from the Rockefeller Centre, among other donors.

It has two bases in Cambodia, one in Phnom Penh and one in Siem Reap, as well as an office in New York and a support office in Paris.

"The centre is the only overseas American research centre in South East Asia, and it has two main goals," said Sullivan. "Firstly it promotes education and scholarly exchange in the social sciences and humanities in terms of Khmer studies and Southeast Asian studies, and it also sets out to build capacity in the higher education sector."

Foremost among its activities is the junior faculty training (JFT) programme, which runs twice a year for six months and develops international-standard research and study skills among an elite pool of Cambodian graduates.

"Entry to the course is competitive," says Sullivan. "A high standard of English is required and students must be very competent, as it is an intensive course, with thorough training from an international professor, usually from the West."

In the past five years the programme has trained 80 Cambodian graduates in the fully funded course which includes a small allowance for the participants. The current course is focused on political science.

Planning ahead

However, if the grants are not renewed, the centre will have to scale back the programme, although a planned library and research centre will go ahead.

While the centre already has the largest public library outside Phnom Penh, a larger library and research centre are being built.

The original library is a beautifully crafted space, with high ceilings, vibrant murals, and more than 5,000 monographs, books, journals and public computers.

"The existing library is just so popular, we are short of space for books and short of space for people," said Sullivan. "So the board decided that in spite of the financial crisis, we would dig deep to fund this new venture."

The new library and research center will be used primarily as a professional space for local, national, regional and international researchers.

Sullivan hopes to build CKS's collection of English, Khmer and French books up to 20,000, with a special focus on developing Khmer materials.

JFT students translate course materials and books, such as David Chandler's famous work A History of Cambodia.

On June 24 the centre will roll out its second translated history, Milton Osborne's South-East Asia: An Introductory History.

Sullivan is determined to see widespread distribution of the book and other texts.

"What we haven't done in the past is to make a consolidated effort to get all of these materials out, and we've also been poor at raising the profile of CKS," he said. 

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