Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Looking back in fondness on Cambodia's golden era




Looking back in fondness on Cambodia's golden era

Looking back in fondness on Cambodia's golden era

PHOTOS SUPPLIED

Kampong Speu locals cheer for then Prince Sihanouk, who was visiting the province in August 1968 to open the Preah Harirak Rama college – one of many new schools he opened in the 1950s and ‘60s.

Many remember it as a “golden era” of Cambodian education, a period of peace and stability dividing the contradictions of the colonial era from the cruel depredations of the Khmer Rouge.

For students who studied under the Sangkum Reastr Niyum regime of then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk in the 1950s and 1960s, the era is a shining example of the possible successes – and crushing failures – of education in Cambodia.

“Looking forward to the Lon Nol regime, the Khmer Rouge and the current government, I think that Prince Sihanouk educated the country very successfully,” recalled Kek Galabru, president of local human rights groups Licadho, who studied in Phnom Penh during the Sangkum period.

“It should be called a golden era,” she said.

Appointed to the throne by the French colonists in 1941, the young Sihanouk set out to forge a new future for Cambodia through education.

Under his personal direction, the public education system expanded from just 12 high schools and two universities in 1955 to 180 high schools and 48 universities by 1968.

What I remember is that all the students respected their teachers and maintained good discipline. I never saw students drink alcohol and commit violent acts like they do today.

During the same period, the number of children enrolled in primary school jumped from 311,000 to more than 1,025,000; high school enrolments increased from 5,300 to 117,000.
During the 1960s, Galabru was a student at the Faculty of Medicine at the Royal University of Phnom Penh and recalled the intellectually honest climate of the time.

PHOTOS SUPPLIED

Left: Sihanouk accepts the thanks of a woman following the completion of work on school buildings in Kampot province, in 1963. Right: Students work in an electrical workshop at the Khmer-Soviet Friendship Advanced Institue of Technology.

“I knew that both teachers and students were pure of heart, we had never heard of bribery in the field of education,” Galabru said.

“Teachers followed up the students’ homework and always encouraged students from the heart, not just for the money.”

A 61-year-old retired soldier from Preak Pra commune in Kandal province, who works as a security guard at the Central Market but declined to be named, said that in his memory the Sangkum presided over a peaceful and harmonious society.

“What I remember is that all the students respected their teachers and maintained good discipline,” he said. “I never saw students drink alcohol and commit violent acts like they do today.”

After graduation, Galabru took a position in the Russian Hospital between 1968 and 1971 before fleeing to France, where she continued to work as a doctor.

She said that a number of her fellow exiles who graduated with degrees in medicine also continued their work abroad on the qualifications they earned in Phnom Penh.

“I continued my medical practice in France, and they recognized my certificate,” recalled Galabru.

“The certificate met French requirements.”

Returning to Cambodia in 1989, Galabru was struck by the near-complete deterioration of the education system under the spartan, anti-intellectual policies of the Khmer Rouge.

Luise Ahrens, an American Maryknoll nun who arrived in Cambodia in 1991 as an adviser to the Ministry of Education and is now an administrator at the Royal University, said rebuilding the education system had been a tremendous challenge throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

When the university reopened its doors in 1979, the vegetation filling its grounds had to be mowed down so that students could enter, she told the Post.

Only a few professors and some 34 students from the university survived the apocalypse that engulfed Cambodia at the hands of the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979.

The withdrawal of Soviet-bloc aid in the late 1980s devastated the Cambodian education system again, but at least this time it was not eradicated.

On her arrival in 1992, Ahrens said the Royal University’s vice rector told her: “We have 350 people who are studying to be Vietnamese and Russian language teachers and I want you to make them English teachers instead.”

According to Ahrens, much of the instruction during that time was conducted in an ad hoc manner, with little central coordination.

“People were teaching what they knew,” she said. “They often had just one book, and that’s what they taught from. If the teachers understood the book, that’s what they taught from.”

In the years since, relative peace and stability have allowed Cambodia to consolidate the achievements of the past two decades and incrementally regain some of its “golden years” footing.

While many problems remain – from corruption and cheating to unpaid teachers and limited resources – Ahrens has seen promising signs.

“Three months ago, we began a strategic planning process to outline the university’s mission and goals,” she said. “[And] we have 35 teachers applying for TOEFL training this summer. Four or five years ago they wouldn’t have done it. They wouldn’t have seen the value.”

MOST VIEWED

  • Public warned of dengue risks amid rainy season

    Minister of Health Mam Bun Heng has issued an eight-point plan to destroy mosquitoes carrying dengue fever amid the rainy season. In a four-page directive, Bun Heng warned that while the number of dengue cases has dropped sharply compared to last year, it could increase

  • Thirteen charged in UK migrant lorry tragedy

    Thirdteen suspects arrested by French police over the deaths of 39 Vietnamese migrants in a refrigerated lorry in Britain have been charged with people trafficking, a judicial source said on Saturday. Six of the group – mainly Vietnamese and French nationals – were held on Tuesday in the

  • Cambodian Blue Helmet dies of virus

    The last rites for Cambodian Blue Helmet peacekeeper Sar Savy, who died on Friday at 63 from Covid-19 while on a mission in the Republic of Mali, will be held on Wednesday and Thursday at the UN base there. Cambodia’s National Centre for Peacekeeping Forces

  • World Bank donates $15 million in aid

    The World Bank on Friday approved $15 million for a medical training system to help Cambodia equip doctors with more skills before they start work. The budget, which was granted by the International Development Association (IDA), is intended to improve health care services. The World Bank

  • Ministry signs MoU to develop ICT training

    The Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport on Friday signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with IT Academy STEP Cambodia (STEP) to further develop the Sisters of Code project. The project trains female students in computer programming, and enhances information and communication technology (ICT) textbooks

  • Masseuse caught planting fake bills

    Four suspects were sent to Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Sunday for allegedly stealing money from a customer who had visited their massage parlour for a cupping session last Friday in Anlong Kgnan village, in Sen Sok district’s Khmuonh commune. District police chief Hour