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Cambodia’s turbulent educational history

Cambodia’s turbulent educational history

Professor Jean-Michel Filippi.

WE may well think that after the drastic rupture implemented by the Khmer Rouge regime in the field of education, the understanding of the Cambodian contemporary educational system could do without its history.

Such an approach would be but another manifestation of the historical short-sightedness which characterises many studies on Cambodia. To speak clearly, the violence of the Khmer Rouge regime doesn’t isolate Democratic Kampuchea from the course of Cambodian history and, in the field of education, this regime falls within the scope of breaks which characterise the history of education in Cambodia.

In Cambodia education began within the Buddhist pagoda. As the village moral and social training centre, the pagoda had been for many centuries the sole place of education in Cambodia. Techniques of education were based on maxims often taken from Cbaps. Cbaps are educational works put into verse containing prescriptive moral precepts which had to be listened to and memorised until they were known by heart.

As soon as the early 1920s, the French protectorate regime (1863-1953) implemented a new teaching system: pagoda renovated schools. What was at stake was to teach new subject matter including arithmetic, French and geography in addition to traditional subjects.

French Protectorate authorities noticed serious deficiencies in the then-traditional education to justify this break. The Protectorate’s main intentions were of a more political nature: to bring the monks’ community (Sangha) into line.

The reforms of the Protectorate are at the origins of a double rupture: on the one hand by opposing the development of modernised traditional education within the framework of the pagoda and, on the other, by creating Franco-Khmer public schools which aimed at training local executives needed by the Protectorate.

This reform did not have a smooth passage because no one was really pleased. On the one side, the Sangha wasn’t exactly happy about losing an important part of its prerogatives and, on the other side, Cambodians who had benefited from a French education, like Prince Areno Yukantor, considered that traditional education aimed at “keeping us in ignorance”.

Prince Sihanouk’s Sangkum Reastr Niyum (Popular Socialist community) (1955-1970) inherited a situation far from satisfactory. Pre WW2 figures speak for themselves: in 1932-1933, there were 225 pagoda renovated schools, and their number rose to 908 in 1938– 1939. For the whole period 1932–1939, there were 18 Franco–Khmer public schools even if it was originally planned to transform pagoda-renovated schools into Franco–Khmer public schools, the latter being the only ones to offer a comprehensive primary school curriculum. The first and only one comprehensive secondary education curriculum was offered in 1935 when Sisovath junior high school became a grammar school.

Following the UNESCO recommendations, a real educational revolution took place during the first years following Cambodia’s independence in 1953.

Between 1955 and 1958, the number of pagoda-renovated schools increased by 47, while in the same period the number of Khmer public schools (in fact the new name of Franco-Khmer public schools with no changes in the curriculum) rose from 1,352 to 1,653. In the field of superior education, figures are even more eloquent: from 11 schools in 1956 to 18 in 1958 and to 29 in the following years.

The Cambodian state also made great efforts with regard to universities: expansion of the Royal University of Phnom Penh and building of the Takeo-Kampot and Battambang universities. The rupture with the preceding period is obvious: 432,649 students in 1956 and 1,160,456 in 1969 – all the levels included.

In spite of all those efforts, SRN has been considered as a failure in the field of education by some specialists like David Ayres.

He proposed an analysis according to which: “Throughout the newly independent nations of Asia and Africa, education was pursued with promises of rapid development and rapid modernisation. The promised riches were not forthcoming, resulting in dissatisfaction...”.

The SRN educational system was caught in a stranglehold between modernity and tradition.

The will of modernity has been translated into an educational policy unsuited to the needs of a country where 80 percent of the population had its income from agricultural activities and Ayres concluded that: “Students’ perceptions of their future, created by the very nature of the educational system, were incompatible with the social and economic capacity of the country to absorb their aspirations.”   

In Cambodia, just like in most of non-aligned countries of that time, education was seen very soon as a way to escape from peasant conditions to become a white collar person.

From the early ’60s, the state couldn’t absorb civil servants anymore; this phenomenon was brilliantly analysed by Jean-Claude Pomonti and Serge Thion in their book Des courtisans aux partisans (From courtiers to partisans).

We nevertheless have to put this so-called failure in perspective. During the 1960s, in Cambodia and everywhere else, considerable hopes were set in education. One had finally to become disappointed and give up the illusion according to which education would put right social disparities.

What can be criticised is an excessive volunteerism which, through masking the realities of a society, didn’t allow people to conceive an adequate education system. SRN education system nevertheless deserves better than excessive denial: one has only to meet teachers trained in that period to be aware of the quality of the trainings. Cambodian university handbooks of that time are very often of a quality higher than now. In 1979, the SRN trained teachers who survived the Khmer Rouge regime and they were the first to operate the Cambodian education system from almost nothing.

The Khmer Republic which followed the coup d’état of 1970 was plagued by civil war and, outside Phnom Penh and the provincial capitals, the state wasn’t allowed the opportunity to do anything in the field of education.

Democratic Kampuchea (DK) (1975-1979) banned all traditional education activities. A small number of foreign visitors like the Swede Gunnar Bergström brought back photographs of classrooms, but we know now that it was only propaganda. One thing is for sure, the Khmer Rouge closed down all the schools and the teachers were literally outlawed; most of them didn’t survive the Khmer Rouge period.

The People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK) (1979- 1992) which followed the fall of The DK was to face an utter destitution in the field of education: total lack of teachers, premises and teaching equipment.

An important part of the children old enough to be sent to school didn’t have access to education during the civil war (1970-1975), not to talk of the Khmer Rouge regime which, apart from its indoctrination sessions, banned purely and simply any kind of teaching. As soon as 1979, teaching started over in a situation of utter destitution.

In the former schools which could still be used, but also in the streets, civil servants and teachers who remained alive showed an exceptional devotion by teaching even at night.

The history of education during the PRK is still to be written, but in any case the Cambodian education system was restored in 12 years. Criticisms are nevertheless many.

For instance, the will to break with a past led to the banishment of the foreign languages which had been traditionally taught in Cambodia, French, English and Chinese, and many people still tell about the secret teaching sessions of these languages in private apartments at nightfall.

Following the Paris agreement (1991), the restoration of the Kingdom of Cambodia (1993) is an additional rupture in the field of education.

Since 1993-1994 education has become a priority, but in a rather new way of which the principles are often disarming. Henceforth, the ministry of education has been assisted by an impressive number of international actors: World Bank, international organisations, various foreign bilateral cooperation programmes, without forgetting an important numbers of NGO which suddenly discovered that they had competences in education. There is more than a risk of cacophony.

Even if it is too early to do a global appraisal of the last 18 years, there remain many serious problems amongst which is a recurring illiteracy.

Another problem fraught with consequences for the future is the balance between the curricula worked out those last years and the real needs of the country.

From an historical point of view, education in Cambodia is characterised by a sequence of ruptures and in relation to the neighbouring countries is still distinguished by being seriously handicapped by the recent history.


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