TIME FOR A SMOKE
Tyres burn during a tutors' protest at the University of Fine Arts.
AS strikes in Phnom Penh and several provinces closed schools for the second week,
educators maintained that government salary offers were still not acceptable. A Faculty
of Agriculture professor said: "I think that it is a 'stomach problem' that
caused the teachers to strike."
Signs on gates and fences at Sisowath high school read: " This strike will go
on until an acceptable solution is received from the government", "The
stomach is hungry, the teacher is not able to teach," and "If the teacher's
salary is not increased, the MP's [Members of Parliament] should be only four times
more than the teacher's."
Earning between $15 to $20 per month, teachers complain that they do not even make
enough to pay for water and electricity, much less rent a home and support a family.
One hundred and forty-four professors at the University of Phnom Penh, supported
by a number of secondary school teachers, put their thumb prints on a petition Dec
25, 1998 asking the government for raises in monthly salaries to $300. The request
gave the government a month to address their concerns.
In response to the teachers' threats, the government held a meeting on Jan 15 and
proposed a $5 monthly bonus. The teachers refused and the strikes commenced as scheduled
on Jan 25 at the university and at several secondary schools in Phnom Penh.
Despite a Jan 26 evening broadcast on state television read by Secretary of State
for Education Pok Than, appealing to professors and teachers to return to their classrooms
and understand the situation, the strike continues.
Ly Phatsem, a representative of mathematics professors at the university, said the
teachers would continue to strike until the government made them an acceptable offer,
but indicated that their demands were flexible. "We do not insist the government
increase our salary to $300, but to an amount which is convenient to the price of
goods, otherwise we will continue to strike," he said.
He urged the government to act swiftly out of concern for the students and their
studies. "We know that the students are also concerned and support us, because
teachers and students have a close relationship," he said.
He stressed that their actions do not constitute an illegal demonstration subject
to a government crackdown. "We are teachers. We act in conformity with the law,"
he said. "It is not a demonstration, just a strike not to teach."
Heading off charges that the strike is politically motivated or manipulated, he added
that a statement by the professors had banned any political party leaders from entering
"I come to the university everyday. There has not been any politician interfering,"
he said. "The strike has been conducted by our conscience, for our stomach."
He claimed that teachers in Kampong Chhnang, Kampong Thom, Kratie, Prey Veng, Battambang
and Takeo provinces have been supporting the strike, while some teachers predict
a further spread.
Strikers turned down a meeting with government officials because their representatives
were only willing to meet directly with the minister. "Actually, His Excellency
Toh Lah is sick," Pok Than said Jan 26.
He pointed out that the minister did not have the authority to unilaterally increase
salaries and that representatives of the ministries of Education, Finance, Planning,
Public Works and Transport and the Council of Ministers had set up a working group
to address the issue.
Than said that he thought the strike was motivated by economic concerns. "I
do not think that the strike is political. In fact, the salary of the teachers is
not sufficient for their living conditions," he acknowledged.
Finance Minister Keat Chhon said Jan 28 that the government could not afford more
than the monthly bonus offered. "We do not have the possibility to add more.
We do not have money," he said.
There are 84,041 educators across the country, according to the education indicator
of 1998, issued by the ministry of education.
A Jan 29 proposal from the Council of Ministers, supported by the CPP party, would
slash government salaries by 70%.
Salaries of undersecretaries of state, secretaries of state, and ministers are believed
to range from 1.6 million riel, 1.7 million riel and 2 million riel respectively,
according to government spokesman Khieu Thavika.
Pen Thol, a government adviser, said the reduction would save 3500 million riel per
year, which could be added to the teachers' bonuses as well as the other civil servants.
But the proposal failed to break the deadlock. At a Jan 30 meeting, about 70 teachers'
representatives from nine institutions met and composed their reply, emblazoned on
banners and signs: " Reduction of government officials' salaries is not a solution
to the teachers' demands", "The request to increase salary of teachers
is to strengthen education", "Teachers request a salary increase only for
convenient living conditions, not to oppose the government", "The teachers'
strike is not political."
Phnom Penh high school and university classrooms were left - almost - empty as hundreds of teachers and professors walked off their jobs in a demand for higher salaries.
After the meeting a representative, Phnom Penh University professor Heng Savoeun,
said that the teachers did not ask the government to reduce the salaries of others.
"We welcome the MPs who decide to cut their salaries, but for our request we
only demand the government to increase our salary for convenient living," he
said, adding that the strikers remain united.
Vowing that the strike would continue until an acceptable solution is reached, he
repeated others' claims that the strike is not political. "We do not have any
ringleaders to conduct the strike," he maintained. "We started from the
university, a petition was distributed and others supported us."
He declined to state whether strikers were holding fast to their demands for $300
a month, saying that he only wanted a reasonable solution.
Students, meanwhile, are concerned about passing their exams. Kun Phaly, a ninth
grader at Baktuk high school, said if the strike takes a long time, it will seriously
affect his studies. " I am very sorry, it cuts my study time. This year I have
to take an exam," he complained. "I want my teacher to teach. My parents
do not have money for me to study in private class."
Tep Sokun, deputy director of Sisowath School, said: "To strike is their right,
but they must not lobby the other teachers still teaching to join them. They should
pity the students."
Ieng Piseth, a fourth-year biology student at the university, also expressed frustration
at the strike, but appealed to the government. "I am very sorry ... As long
as there is no solution from the government, and the strike lasts a long time, it
will seriously affect the students," he said. "On behalf of the students,
we urge the government to solve this problem. We have no right to force the professors."
On Feb 1, the seventh day of the strike, students began burning tires in front of
the Institute of Technology demanding a settlement by the government.
Students hung banners on the fences with slogans such as: "We, the students,
request the government to address the problem of inactive education as soon as possible",
"The economic government is the one that pays special attention to the educational
Chin Mony, 20, a third year student complained that he and his classmates have not
studied since Jan 25. He explained that each month there is a study program and that
whenever a class is closed the students miss important knowledge.
"We will continue this demonstration until the government solves the problem
so that we are able to learn," he said. No government official was sent to meet
the students at the demonstration.
Classes at the University of Phnom Penh, Institute of Technology, Santhormok, Baktuk,
Sisowath and Chatomuk high schools remained closed at press time.