Students at schools in Cambodia will learn about the life, achievements and leadership of Prime Minister Hun Sen under a proposal by the Defence Ministry to change the nation’s curriculum and introduce the ruling party’s fiercely contested historical narrative into textbooks.
Revealing the plans yesterday, Defence Ministry Director General of Policy and Foreign Affairs Nem Sowath said there was a need to fill a “gap in history”.
Observers, however, were quick to note the prime minister’s personal story is already widely promoted by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, not to mention by the premier himself, with one analyst calling the proposal simple “politics”.
Sowath, who has written a biography of Defence Minister Tea Banh, said the ministry wanted students to have “the opportunity” to learn about “where the premier comes from”, his “principles of leadership” and “all the things we have built”.
The material, he said, would include Hun Sen’s role in the Vietnamese-backed force that toppled the Pol Pot regime and his much-touted “Win-Win Policy”, which the government credits with ending Cambodia’s civil war by allowing Khmer Rouge fighters to defect. He said the Defence Ministry has already requested the Education Ministry to incorporate the premier’s narrative.
“I think we need to prepare all this knowledge, place it in public and build it into the history curriculum,” he said. “We learn about other kings in the past and, though this regime’s king comes from kings, Samdech [Hun Sen] comes from real people.”
Education Ministry spokesman Ros Salin yesterday declined to comment.
Sowath was speaking at an event for journalists yesterday to prepare for the 40th anniversary of Hun Sen’s crossing into Vietnam after defecting from the Khmer Rouge, in which he was a deputy regimental commander.
The event will be marked on Wednesday when the premier travels to the east of the country to reenact the 1977 journey. Hun Sen returned two years later alongside a group of fellow ex-Khmer Rouge cadres, who were installed into power with backing from the Vietnamese military.
The story is perhaps the most divisive political narrative in modern Cambodia.
While the CPP has played down the premier’s Khmer Rouge record, emphasised his sacrifice and cast the moment as one of “liberation”, many opposition figures characterise it as an “invasion” and accuse the ruling party of remaining “puppets” of Vietnam.
Reached yesterday, Chin Chanveasna, director of NGO Education Partnership, declined to discuss the Defence Ministry’s proposal, though he expressed hope the government would consult with stakeholders and development partners before making any changes to textbooks.
San Chey, executive director of transparency NGO ANSA, said he believed the curriculum should steer clear of the government’s achievements, adding any student interested in pursuing the topic could easily find the necessary material.
“We already have a lot of history to learn about,” he said.
Sebastian Strangio, author of Hun Sen’s Cambodia, said the proposal formed the next step in the CPP’s attempts to “enshrine” the premier’s legacy.
He said that the narrative, based around the toppling of the Khmer Rouge and the CPP’s stewardship of country’s peace, development and stability, formed a core element of the party’s claims to legitimacy and had been propagated for decades.
“Hun Sen’s personal story is being mobilised to fortify this old political narrative and of course Hun Sen’s story has been a part of this for a long time. What’s new about this is putting it in the curriculum,” Strangio said.
“Hun Sen’s defection was an important event and it was something that came with a lot of risks, so he deserves credit for an act of bravery, but the current version of history that’s being propagated by the CPP government excludes any dissenting views or complicating factors on this story.
“And this is politics – this isn’t history, plain and simple.”