The annual Education Congress held November 5-7 in Phnom Penh drew a crowd of about
1,000 members of the education sector from around the country as well high ranking
officials of the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports and Prime Minister Hun Sen.
The conference is a nation-wide review of the education sector for the past year.
In speeches in the main hall of the newly built Hun Sen building of the National
Institute of Education, government officials made the case that education in Cambodia
was improving at a strong pace.
They offered a laundry list of statistics: 10,190 more pupils in pre-school, 88 new
primary schools, 176 more lower secondary schools, an additional four public and
four private higher education insititions, two silver medals and four bronze medals
by Cambodians in the international junior science olympiad in Brazil, 17,500 copies
of documents printed for training pre-school and primary school teachers.
Donor groups spoke highly of the government's efforts to meet UN-established education
benchmarks - compliance with which allows Cambodia to receive about $57.4 million
in special UN Fast Track Initiative (FTI) funding.
Meanwhile, sensitive subjects such as teacher salaries, informal school fees, and
budget monitoring remained largely untouched in the main hall speeches and were relegated
to side room discussions.
Such staging did not go unnoticed.
"The government has made significant achievements, but in the conference they
only address quantitative issues like the number of schools and teachers and not
qualitative issues. They don't talk about the sensitive issues, they don't talk about
teacher salaries and informal school fees," said an NGO official involved in
the event who asked not to be identified. "And during the congress, the government
recognizes only schools that do well. They should also show schools that didn't do
well," the official added.
Prime Minister Hun Sen injected some life into the final afternoon's otherwise lackluster
speeches with his trademark tangential discourse.
"When I was young I had to leave my parents to attend high school. I had to
leave my parents at the age of 14. I don't want the young today to have the same
fate. I want schools in proximity to homes. Where there are no schools, we need to
build schools. This is like revenge for what happened to me in the past, not against
anybody or any place, but against what happened to me. I don't want children to have
the same past."
The Prime Minster segued from the school related problems he faced as a child to
the problems some youth today are posing for life in Phnom Penh.
"It's a shame that some children have money and they buy cars and motorbikes.
Poor children have all this money and they threaten government officials," who
try to stop them from racing on public streets.
While the event provided an important forum for the government to show that it is
meeting its commitment to receive FTI funding, PM Hun Sen's candid remarks may have
left the greatest impression.
Teruo Jinnai, UNESCO Cambodia representative and chair of the Education Sector Working
Group - which includes representatives of all the education development partners
of Cambodia - told the Post on November 12 that "a speech like Prime Minister
Hun Sen's gives us a lot of confidence.
"It makes us feel that we can really speak with the government."