Grade 12 Exam Asks Students to Explain the ‘Culture of Dialogue’

In the country’s current political climate, the term “culture of dialogue” is inescapable, whether because it is being used to resolve the issues of the day or allegedly being violated by the ruling or opposition party.

It even showed up in the history section of this year’s grade 12 national exam.

Education Minister Hang Chuon Naron said Wednesday that students were given an open-ended question asking them to “Please explain the culture of dialogue.”

Though the phrase has been tossed around in Cambodia’s political arena in the past, its most recent iteration was born in the wake of the July 22 political deal struck last year between Prime Minister Hun Sen and opposition leader Sam Rainsy.

Mr. Naron said current events would eventually become history, and that students should be plugged in.

“The students should not just study what happened before, but they should study what’s going on,” he said. “For example, in 1998, the Khmer Rouge surrendered and for the first time they made peace. The students that passed the exam in 1998 should know what happened, and later it becomes history.”

The culture of dialogue, according to the politicians who repeat it like a mantra, is meant to replace a culture of violence that has frequently defined politics in Cambodia. Critics, however, say that the new “culture” is the ruling party’s latest tactic to silence its political foes.

Long Rim, a history teacher at Hun Sen Bun Rany Wat Phnom High School in Phnom Penh, noted that the culture of dialogue was not part of the school’s history curriculum.

“Under instruction from school directors, political affairs are generally not allowed to be talked about or discussed in school,” Mr. Rim said. “So the students may have no idea how to answer the question about the culture of dialogue.”

Earlier this month, the Education Ministry issued a directive banning political activity at academic institutions, threatening to fine or even shut down offending schools.

Students who took the grade 12 exam and were interviewed for this story declined to give their full names for fear that it could hurt their grades.

Rachna, 17, said she suspected that the culture of dialogue would appear on the exam due to the term’s prominence on Facebook, and even asked her history teacher to explain it.

“I asked my teacher its definition, but he said…the chance of this appearing on the test was pretty slim,” she said.

Her answer to the question, she said, consisted of four bullet points: “To solve the political issues; To make a language for our nation; To smooth the political path; To make peace in the country.”

Ann, 17, said he was also familiar with the culture of dialogue thanks to Facebook, but was expecting the history portion of the exam to focus on the Khmer Rouge era and civil wars.

“I think this question is related to politics,” he said, “so my answer was: ‘The discussion between different sides of political leaders toward a resolution aiming for peace in the country.’”

Mr. Chuon Naron said there was no correct answer to the question, and that students should have been creative in answering it.

However, Ouk Chhayavy, acting president of the Cambodian Independent Teachers’ Association, said the question served the government’s interests.

“The ruling party and the Education Ministry want students to say something about their achievements with the culture of dialogue,” she said.

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