The backlash began Wednesday against a new Education Ministry directive that bans political activities and unauthorized associations at academic institutions, with the country’s largest teachers’ union and various youth groups accusing the government of hypocrisy.
The directive, signed by Education Minister Hang Chuon Naron and dated Monday, threatens to shutter schools and remove academic staff and students if they are deemed to have tarnished an institution’s political “neutrality.”
On Wednesday, the Cambodian Independent Teachers’ Association (CITA) released a letter protesting the ban, which it said violates their constitutional rights and strangles independent education.
“[CITA] considers the regulations…an attempt to curb the rights and freedoms of associations that are protecting the rights of teachers and strengthening the education sector,” the letter said.
CITA notes that a number of CPP-aligned youth associations are allowed to operate freely and actively within schools, encouraging students and teachers to join. It names the Cambodian Red Cross, headed by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s wife, Bun Rany, and the Union of Youth Federations of Cambodia, headed by the prime minister’s son, Hun Many.
Its letter said the ban violates the Constitution, the Education Law and the Law on Civil Servants, and calls for the directive to be revoked.
CPP spokesman Sok Eysan defended the existence of CPP-aligned groups, which help produce “bamboo shoots,” or fresh recruits, for the government, but said the ruling party would abide by the new directive and cease recruitment activities on school grounds.
“These [youth] groups have existed for a long time, even in the Samdech King [Norodom Sihanouk] regime, and…they help grow bamboo shoots,” he said.
CNRP spokesman Ou Chanrith said the new directive would have little impact on the opposition party, as it had never targeted academic institutions to rally support.
“The CNRP has never created a group in schools. Only the CPP has created such groups, and that is not right, so I agree with this point,” he said.
Kao Poeun, executive director of the Khmer Institute for National Development, which works to increase youth engagement in democracy building, said the ostensible goal of the ban, to reduce partisan influence within the education system, was laudable.
“If the directive decreases the political involvement of school directors, then it is a good thing, because nowadays, school directors are high-ranking government officials and involved in politics,” Mr. Poeun said.
The new rules, however, would likely result in less political engagement among students, he said.
“The directors should be the focus. Students should not be the focus, as they make up the majority of our society and are its future, so they need to be engaged,” he said.
Tim Malay, president of the Cambodian Youth Network, said the directive was merely the government’s latest attempt to quash free political thinking among young Cambodians.
“Schools are places that teach and train students to understand their society, and this includes politics and deforestation,” he said. “They can help improve their country by fighting injustice and corruption.”
“Many universities [already] prohibit student networks because it impacts their political interests, but they allow other groups that support the CPP,” he added.
Sophal Ear, a Cambodian-American political scientist who authored the book “Aid Dependence in Cambodia: How Foreign Assistance Undermines Democracy,” said that any regulations that suppress the development of critical thinking abilities undermine the entire purpose of higher education.
“Academic freedom is the cornerstone of universities, and restrictions will allow error to creep into the university,” he said, recalling an incident in which a number of CPP-aligned students protested against former U.N. human rights envoy Surya Subedi during a lecture he delivered at Cambodia Mekong University in 2013.
“A few years ago, the Human Rights special rapporteur was heckled by young people when he spoke. Should the university administrators be fined? Dismissed?”
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