Cuba was just one of many countries on the communist side of the Iron Curtain that opened their universities to bright young Cambodians in the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge regime.
Aware of the devastation that Cambodia’s communists had wrought on the country’s educated class, the Soviet Union – a key ally of the Vietnamese-installed People’s Republic of Kampuchea government – accepted Khmer students in droves in an attempt to help replace the “lost generation” that had perished under the Khmer Rouge regime.
Since 1980, more than 8,000 Cambodian students have pursued some part of their higher education in the former Soviet Union, according to a spokeswoman for the Russian Embassy.
“Half the diplomats of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs ... studied in the former Soviet Union,” she said.
According to information provided by the Bulgarian Embassy, 57 Cambodian students graduated from higher education institutes in Bulgaria after pursing degree courses which ranged from classical music composition to industrial chemical engineering.
Some 30 Cambodians graduated from Polish higher education institutes, including the current director of the National Museum, Hab Touch, and the director of the National Library, Khlot Vibolla, who both pursued degrees in conservation and restoration in Warsaw.
During the 1980s, the majority of Khmer students sent to Soviet Bloc universities were pursuing technical degrees or economics-based studies, said the Russian Embassy spokeswoman.
But the Eastern Bloc’s influence began to fade soon after the break-up of the Soviet Union, as non–communist countries emerged as Cambodia’s biggest patrons, although Russia maintains yearly scholarships for 25 Cambodians.
Along with the shifting political allegiances came a change in what Cambodian students want to study abroad, the spokeswoman said.
The hard sciences have given way to softer disciplines like management, politics or psychology, she said.