With an attempted coup against the government of President Recep Erdogan quashed only days ago and more than 7,000 alleged conspirators now under arrest, the Turkish ambassador to Cambodia yesterday pressed the government to take action against local schools affiliated with the man it claims responsible.
At a hastily called noon press conference, Ambassador Ilhan Khemal Tug called on the Kingdom to shutter the Zaman International School and Zaman University in Phnom Penh.
Turkey expects Cambodia to “halt all support” of the schools, Tug said, and for the schools to “end all activities” because of their association with cleric and political figure Fethullah Gulen’s Gulen Movement, which Turkey has designated a terrorist group since 2013.
“This was more than a treacherous plot,” Tug said at yesterday’s press conference, which was held at the Turkish Embassy and identified Gulen as the coup’s mastermind. “It was a terrorist campaign”.
Once a key Erdogan alley, Gulen has been labelled a terrorist by Turkey since the relationship soured in 2013 and a systematic campaign undertaken to root so-called Gulenists from positions of power, particularly the judiciary, media and police.
The Zaman schools – which have had a Cambodian presence for nearly 20 years – were founded by Atilla Yusef Guleker, a former journalist in Turkey and a member of the Gulen Movement.
Guleker wrote for the newspaper Zaman, which was closely politically aligned with Gulen until its takeover in March by the Turkish government.
In a statement to the Post yesterday, Ejder Kilic, chairman of Zaman Co Ltd, which runs the local schools, said that while the organisation acknowledged a “spiritual” connection with Gulen, he “has never had any official link, ownership or involvement in the school administration, he has never taken a part in any sort of decision making process in forming or running the schools”.
“The schools are licensed by Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports, running under Zaman Co Ltd which is also a registered company in Ministry of Commerce,” Kilic’s statement continues. “So the schools are Cambodian schools which are regularly inspected, paying taxes duly and operated by its School Board.”
Members of the Gulen Movement have founded schools in countries around the world, including more than 100 schools in the US, where Gulen currently lives in self-exile in Pennsylvania.
Spokesmen for the ministries of education and foreign affairs both declined to comment yesterday. Seung Sophari, spokeswoman for the Ministry of Commerce, said Turkey had “warned them” about the school previously.
“[The Turkish Embassy] warned us once before that the school was involved with people who wanted to topple the government,” she said, adding that “no action has been taken yet” as Minister of Commerce Pan Sorasak is out of the country.
On its website, the school touts the fact that the prime minister approved their university licence in 2010, while at the relocation of the group’s high school, Deputy Prime Minister Sok An served as chairman at the new building’s inauguration ceremony in 2011. He expressed his desire at the time that the school would serve to improve bilateral relations between Turkey and Cambodia.
“High-level [Turkish] Government officials participated in Grand Inauguration Ceremonies,” Zaman’s Kilic said yesterday, pointing to the attendance of then-Turkish deputy prime minister Bulent Arinc.
“These officials were and still [are] current government members in Turkey,” he said. “We have never experienced any animosity from the Turkish Government so far in our knowledge until [yesterday’s] press conference.”
Relatives of students, meanwhile, expressed fears over the possible implications of any closure.
Sata Morat, president of the Cambodian Student Association in Turkey, whose nephew and brother are currently studying at the Zaman International School, said the closure of the school, which he termed one of Cambodia’s best, would be a sharp blow to their prospects.
“The quality of education and the certificate from Zaman is equivalent to other international schools in the US or Europe, so it would be difficult to find another school to replace it. I’m worried it will affect the studies of my nephew and brother . . . If we cannot find another similar school, it will affect the quality [of their education].”
Just last year, Hun Sen awarded cash prizes to a number of Cambodian Zaman students for their performance at the “Genius Olympiad 2015” academic competition in New York.
Additional reporting by Hor Kimsay