Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Independent Teachers Association, is greeted by supporters as he is freed from Prey Sar prison on January 18. He was arrested on defamation charges and jailed on October 15, 2005.
R ong Chhun, 37, was born in 1969 in Chong Koh Toch village, Sa'ang District, Kandal province. He graduated from the Royal University of Phnom Penh in 1993 with a bachelor degree in mathematics. Returning to his home province, he taught maths at Sa'ang high school until 2001 when he moved back to Phnom Penh to work at the Ministry of Education's planning office. Chhun's involvement with the trade union movement began in 1997 when he began working with the Free Trade Union (FTU). He became president of the Cambodian Independent Teachers Association (CITA) in 2000, and is currently president of the Cambodia Confederation Union, which was formed in August 2006 when FTU and CITA merged. He spoke to Cat Barton and Sam Rith about the government's 2007 budget, teacher salaries, and the proposal to found a Cambodian military university.
The government is allocating nearly 12 percent of the 2007 budget to education, but you have argued that it needs 20 percent - more than the 18 percent Thailand allocates to education. Why?
Greater priority should be given to education in the 2007 budget for two main reasons: first, to improve the overall quality of schooling being provided, and second, to improve the quality of life of Cambodian teachers.
In 2006, 11.6 percent of the national budget - 442,000 million riel - was allocated to education. The government plans to increase funding to education by 3 percent in 2007 but this is still not enough, the education sector would still be underfunded.
Currently, the bulk of the national budget goes on national defense, yet this should not be such a priority now - our country is at peace. The government should reduce spending on national defense and increase spending on education. We must invest more in education, because if we want to develop our society we need to have well educated citizens: education is essential to development.
What is the effect of underfunding on Cambodia's education system?
The education system is seriously damaged. Teachers still have salaries similar to what they had many years ago but the price of goods in the market has increased sharply.
Consequently, survival corruption has become endemic - every day we receive complaints from parents saying teachers are charging their children to go to school. Since the beginning of this year there have been a lot of dropouts and we believe this is a direct result of children having to pay to attend school.
CITA's primary goal is to eliminate all corruption within the education system. But for this to be achieved, we have to invest in education.
The first step is for the government to pay teachers 400,000 ($100) per month. This is why we sent a letter to Hun Sen on November 13 requesting 20 percent of the National Budget in 2007.
Have teacher salaries increased at all over the last 10 years?
Over the last ten years salaries have increased slightly. Ten years ago teachers were receiving $15 a month. As a result of constant pressure from trade unions, this has gradually gone up and now they receive an average of $35 a month.
In Vietnam the lowest salary for teachers is $150 per month, in Thailand, it is $200 per month. It is easy to discuss solving these problems - for example, Hun Sen has promised that all the Cambodian people will have access to good education by 2015 - but we need action, not just talk.
How could the quality of teaching be improved in Cambodia?
We should begin by giving more money to teachers so they can eat. When their bellies are full then we can start training them. This would improve the quality of the education they can provide to the children.
What do you think of the new law on selective compulsory military conscription?
It was not necessary. First, our society is not at war. Second, this law will seriously affect students - it is aimed at people between 18 and 30. In Cambodia there is no set age at which people graduate, sometimes they may graduate at 17, sometimes at 20. So when people turn 18 and thus become eligible for conscription they could still very easily be in fulltime education - then, if they were to be called up, their studies would be adversely affected.
Those who will suffer most as a result of the new conscription law will be poor children. I predict an increase in corruption as local authorities could use the law to threaten poor men and their families with the draft to extort money from them.
The government has passed an unnecessary law. There are many other laws, for example the anticorruption law, which are far more necessary. Why has this happened? Because the government itself is corrupt.
Do you think the law will be applied selectively, for example, to get government critics out of the way?
It could be used as a way of punishing civil society. But this would only affect young activists - if anyone is over 30 then they will just be jailed as I was. The government doesn't implement laws and international treaties or the Cambodian constitution.
If Hun Sen wants to rule this country for longer he should respond to the demands of his citizens. If he remains autocratic then society will respond to this.
Does Cambodia's "seriously damaged" eduation system limit the number of people advocating for social change?
In 1993 people voted for change. People want change, they want a democratic society. Ever since that first election, through civil society, people have been learning - learning about their rights and becoming better educated.
In the 2008 elections, if the NEC is independent and fair, I think there will be a change through the ballot boxes. If the NEC is independent then the people will select a good leader who knows how to look after both the nation and its citizens.
Why do you think the government underfunds education?
People who are educated understand what is good and what is bad. Maybe it is a policy of the ruling party not to give enough money to the education system as otherwise there would be more educated people.
Already they shoot anyone who is too good. It is easier for the ruling party to attract the support of less-educated people.
What are your thoughts on the proposed military university?
In Cambodia today we already have a military school to educate both military leaders and normal soldiers. In my opinion it is a waste of money to open a military university. They should give the money they are going to spend on it to the education system as a whole.
We have many institutes of higher education - language schools, accountancy schools. Why can't the military send officers of soldiers there to learn specific skills? Why do they need a military university of their own? It is unnecessary.
In Cambodia the people are still poor: we should concentrate on ameliorating poverty and upgrading standards of living.