Training a New Generation of Cambodian Leaders

By JOHN SPRAGENS Jr.

SIEM REAP, Cambodia -- At the January 10 High School here, teen-agers on recess scuff through rifle bullets and spent casings scattered among the gravel and dust of the walkways between buildings.

The Khmer Rouge, which held power from 1975 through 1978, used the classrooms as an armory until an explosion left nothing but the foundations. The school remained in ruins until 1985, when reconstruction began with help from the central Vietnamese province of Binh Tri Thien.

Since the school opened again last April, it has been so crowded that teachers can arrange the schedule for their 900 students only by holding classes in shifts. Half the students go to class for four hours in the morning; the other half meet every afternoon, Monday through Saturday.

Siem Reap 11th graders copy sketches of chromosomes from the chalk board.

Even so, says Principal Chhoun Charm, there are not enough hours in the regular schedule to complete the courses required by the Ministry of Education. So teachers and students have to make time outside the schedule for two more hours of classes each week.

Teachers and others regarded as intellectuals were seen as unproductive parasites during the Khmer Rouge years, and many died or fled the country. Today, education is a high priority, but resources are limited.

"We have enough notebooks to sell to the students," Chhoun Charm says, "But we don't have enough textbooks. We can provide books for all the teachers, but students have to use textbooks in the library."

The elementary and high school curricula are telescoped into 11 years. And the need for teachers is so great that teacher-training courses are completed in three years instead of four or five, with the promise that graduates can finish the course later, once there are enough teachers to go around.

High schools also provide evening classes for adults whose education was cut short by the Khmer Rouge.

Ten years ago, after Khmer Rouge leaders fled advancing Vietnamese troops, the new government looked to anyone who could read and write to help provide leadership. Now it is trying to fill the gaps in their training.

And over the past decade, schools like January 10 High School (the date is a reference to the day in 1979 when Vietnamese troops reached Siem Reap) have begun to give Cambodia a new generation of leaders.

Phnom Penh medical students take notes during a lecture.

Graduates from general education schools like this one also are beginning to swell the ranks of students in such specialized schools as the Faculty of Medicine in the capital, Phnom Penh.

In April 1975, just before the Khmer Rouge defeated the U.S.-backed government in Phnom Penh, Cambodia had 500 doctors to serve its 7 million people. Another 3,400 young people were studying medicine and pharmacy. In January 1979, when Dr. My Samedy and a small group of physicians who survived the Khmer Rouge years began their efforts to revive the Faculty of Medicine, they could find only 45 doctors and 728 of the former students.

Since that time, as the population has grown to more than 7 million again, the faculty has graduated nearly 400 doctors and more than 200 pharmacists. Enrollment has risen to 2,100 in the school's medicine, dentistry and pharmacy programs.

"We are sending doctors and pharmacists out every year, even to the distant provinces," says Ban Chhan, the faculty's vice president for administration. "It's true that five years ago the hospitals in provinces like Kompong Cham provided limited services because they had no doctors. Now Kompong Cham has five doctors."

In other fields, Cambodia has looked to the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe to provide technical training.

"The first and the second generation of students trained abroad have now come back to the country, and now they are beginning to work in many fields," says Khieu Kanharith, editor of the weekly newspaper Kampuchea (Cambodia). "Besides this, we now have nearly 4,000 students studying abroad."

Phnom Penh also hopes to draw on the technical skills of Cambodians living abroad.

A few already have ventured back to visit families. More may return if negotiations now under way in France and Indonesia lead to a political settlement of the war between the Vietnamese-backed government and the resistance coalition based on the Thai-Cambodian border.


Text copyright © 1989 The News-Journal, Daytona Beach, Florida

Published Jan. 8, 1989

Photographs copyright © 1989 John Spragens, Jr.


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