Several hundred students were mobilised to attend a ruling party election campaign event earlier this week in Kandal’s Koh Thom district, during which they were told to vote for the CPP, in an apparent breach of the law requiring schools and civil servants to remain politically neutral.
According to Chray Thhong, chief of the district education office, he was told to “mobilise the students” by District Chief Eng Mok, who is also the head of the CPP district committee.
Thhong then asked school principals in the district to instruct students to attend the event on May 28, during which Minister of Public Works and Transport Sun Chanthol reportedly called on them to vote for the CPP. “I just did as I was told,” Thhong said yesterday.
Mok confirmed students from four high schools in Koh Thom district attended the event, but said he didn’t think it was wrong for the school principals to have told their students to attend.
The schools included Bun Rany Hun Sen Preak Ta Doung, Hun Sen Koh Thom, Hun Sen Sam Pov Poun and Hun Sen Kampong Kong.
Un Kunna Phea, principal at Bun Rany Hun Sen Preak Ta Doung High School, said he told students about the event in the morning during the national anthem, and that about 200 of them attended.
“The district told me to send the students there, and we are a branch of the party,” he said, referring to the fact that he is the district chief of the high schools committee for the CPP.
He added that attendance wasn’t mandatory and that most of the students’ parents were CPP supporters.
He also acknowledged that he has never told students to attend similar events from other political parties.
Under article 34 of the Education Law, educational establishments are instructed to “respect the principles of neutrality”. The law also says that “political activities and/or propaganda for any political party in education establishments and institutions should be completely banned”.
Meanwhile, the Commune Election Law also stipulates that “civil servants in all areas and at all levels, all institutions and services of the Royal Cambodian Government … shall adopt a neutral attitude and shall not use any power or influence, or commit any activity calculated to be giving a support for … any political party.”
To remind schools of their neutrality, the Ministry of Education in 2015 issued a directive banning political propaganda at educational institutions.
Minister of Education Hang Chuon Naron could not be reached for comment, while ministry spokesman Ros Salin didn’t respond to several requests for comment for this story.
Pov Kunthea, 18, a grade 12 student at Bun Rany Hun Sen Preak Ta Doung, confirmed principal Kunna Phea told students about the event during the national anthem in the morning.
And on Friday before the event, he went around to each class asking who was registered to vote. “Let’s meet on Sunday at the CPP headquarters,” he allegedly told those eligible to vote.
“I think it’s OK because we are youth and we have the opportunity to listen to each party and their policies,” she said. “But my school principal hasn’t told us to go to the CNRP [events].”
Ung Tola, the director of the Kandal provincial education department, said he wasn’t aware that students from the four high schools had attended the CPP campaigning event, but would look into the matter if asked to do so by the Ministry of Education.
When asked about a pro-CPP comment on his Facebook page asking people to vote for the party, Tola said he was unaware of such a post and thought that somebody in the IT department had posted it for him.
Rin Nalik, 19, also a grade 12 student at Bun Rany Hun Sen Preak Ta Doung, said the event gave him assurance that voting for the CPP would be the right decision, despite the fact that his parents are opposition supporters.
“Chanthol mentioned about how much the CPP has developed [the country],” he said. “Obviously, I see the roads being built. I’m going to vote for the CPP.”
Other students were less impressed by the event, however.
Phuong Phanak, 19, another student at the high school, said he didn’t think it was appropriate for the principal to encourage students to attend the rally.
“He should be neutral,” he said. An 18-year-old student at Hun Sen Koh Thom High School, who only wanted to be identified by his family name of Long, agreed that the principal’s actions were out of line. “I don’t think it’s good for teachers to talk about politics,” he said. “This is an institution to teach.”
Sam Kuntheamy, executive director of election monitor Nicfec, said that under the law, civil servants are supposed to remain neutral. “They have to respect the law,” he said.
“They should not be doing that. Even the minister, they are working for the government, not for a party.”
He added that he would raise the issue during a meeting today to assess the election process. Other observers were not surprised by the efforts to mobilise young people for the ruling party.
UK Chhayavy, president of the Cambodian Independent Teachers’ Association, said it was normal for the CPP to “make use of the students”.
“However, I do not support it, and we would like to condemn these activities because they know they are influential people,” she said.
“You cannot just tell students to attend a party’s event because it’s like you are forcing the students to favour the party.”
CNRP lawmaker Son Chhay said the ruling party has used these tactics in the past, “even though the practice is illegal”. “What [the CPP] say on paper will not reflect the practice on the ground.”