Phnom Penh School Has Terrorist Ties, Diplomat Says

Turkey’s ambassador to Cambodia alleged on Monday that a top international school in Phnom Penh is overseen by the “terrorist organization” behind last week’s thwarted coup in Turkey—prompting a threat of legal action by the school.

Speaking during a news conference at the Turkish Embassy, Ambassador Ilhan Kemal Tug said he was petitioning the Cambodian government to shut down Zaman International’s kindergarten, primary and secondary school campuses, as well as Zaman University.

Zaman International's secondary school campus in Phnom Penh's Chamkar Mon district (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)
Zaman International’s secondary school campus in Phnom Penh’s Chamkar Mon district (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

“We are in close contact with the Cambodian government and, as in all spheres of cooperation, I believe the Cambodian government will be on board with this,” Mr. Tug said.

The ambassador’s distrust of Zaman stems from its connection to Fethullah Gulen, a controversial Turkish cleric considered a terrorist by authorities in Ankara. Mr. Gulen’s supporters claim to uphold a modern and pacifist brand of Islam and have founded schools around the world. In 2008, the Reuters news agency estimated that the Gulen movement had 5 million supporters in Turkey and managed a network of 800 schools globally.

According to the Turkish government, Mr. Gulen’s supporters staged the coup attempt in Turkey on Friday night, which sparked mass demonstrations and resulted in the deaths of nearly 300 people.

Mr. Tug said Turkey had been petitioning countries around the world, “including Cambodia,” to recognize the cleric’s network as a terrorist organization.

“However, I would also like to point out that our sensitivity towards this terrorist organization didn’t meet with the same reciprocity that we had expected. We hope this latest coup attempt will help everyone understand the true nature of this terrorist organization,” he said.

“This group has been also active in Cambodia, as you might be aware, since 1993,” Mr. Tug said. “They have been operating with—as I’m sure many of you know—the Zaman group to have schools here, from kindergarten to university.”

In an interview, Mr. Tug said Turkish diplomatic missions cooperated with Gulen schools until 2013—the year Mr. Gulen and then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had an acrimonious falling out—and had therefore amassed detailed knowledge about their connections to the cleric.

Zaman chairman Ejder Kilic said he resented the ambassador’s accusations.

“The founders of Zaman International School started with the spiritual motivation and advice of Mr Fethullah Gulen,” Mr. Kilic said in an emailed statement.

However, he added, “Mr. Gulen has never had any official link, ownership or involvement in the school administration. He has never taken a part in any sort of decision -making process in forming or running the schools.”

Mr. Kilic said Zaman’s four campuses in Phnom Penh, which have a total enrollment of more than 2,000, were licensed by the Ministry of Education, inspected regularly and “famous for their quality education.”

“We are inviting Mr. Ambassador to show the evidence, any verdict and whatever proof he has to blame us, to the public and the authorities. We have the confidence of innocence so it is his part to prove it. We would like to announce that we will seek for our legal rights as this accusation is an attempt to defame our company,” he said.

Mr. Kilic also stressed that Zaman “strongly and unequivocally” condemned the coup attempt in Turkey. “We strongly believe in democracy, and we think that governments should be formed through a process of free and fair elections; we are against any military interventions,” he said.

Mr. Gulen, who is currently in self-imposed exile in the U.S., has also condemned the attempted coup.

Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Chun Sounry said he had no information about the Turkish ambassador’s request, and that his ministry did not have the power “to open or shut down any school.”

Ros Salin, a spokesman for the Education Ministry, and Phay Siphan, a spokesman for the Council of Ministers, declined to comment.

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