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,"
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
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
"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
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
"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."