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.
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.”