Ambassador Talks of Possible Takeover of Zaman

Turkey is in talks with the Cambodian government over the possibility of taking control of the Zaman-operated schools in Phnom Penh, which it alleges have links to a “terrorist organization” behind last year’s attempted coup, the Turkish ambassador said on Friday.

Following the thwarted coup July 15 last year—which claimed the lives of more than 250 people in Ankara and elsewhere—the Turkish government started a global crackdown of institutions it claimed had links to Fethullah Gulen, a controversial cleric it accused of masterminding the uprising.

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Turkish Ambassador Ilhan Kemal Tug speaks at the Turkish Embassy in Phnom Penh on Friday. (Masayori Ishikawa)

Phnom Penh’s Zaman International School and its affiliated university immediately came under fire, with Ambassador Ilhan Kemal Tug calling upon the Cambodian government to shut down the institutions in which more than 900 students are enrolled.

During a news conference at the embassy to mark the attempted coup’s anniversary, which included a screening of a 10-minute video labeling the coup plotters “blood thirsty tyrants,” Mr. Tug reiterated his desire to have the Zaman schools shuttered.

However, the ambassador said he was open to alternative options, including the Turkish government taking control of the institutions.

“Our priority aim is to shut down the schools here,” Mr. Tug said. “But at the same time, we are also aware of the sensitivity of this matter in Cambodia, especially given the number of schools present in the country, so we are trying to find some alternative options, for example, taking over the management of the schools.”

Last year, Zaman denied the schools had any formal connection with Mr. Gulen, threatened legal action against the ambassador and launched a social media campaign to reassure parents that its schools would continue operating as usual.

In a statement on Friday, Zaman said the latest comments by the ambassador were defamatory and maintained that the school was not under threat.

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

“We regret that the Ambassador raised this case again while never presenting any evidence even being asked for many times already. We take this as a baseless accusation and as the last accusation; or else, we will consider it as a defamation case,” the statement said.

“We would like to reassure the students, parents, staffs and the public that the school will remain as an institution to provide education to students as always and look forward to further expansion to meet the current demand,” it added.

Ros Salin, a spokesman for the Education Ministry, did not respond to a request for comment.

In January it was announced that Chea Sophakanny, daughter of Land Minister Chea So­phara, had been made chairwoman of Zaman-operated schools and its largest shareholder, while her husband Eang Sophalleth, a personal adviser to Prime Minister Hun Sen, was its honorary chairman.

Mr. Tug said he was “satisfied” with the “interest and cooperation” of the Cambodian government in talks regarding the Zaman schools.

He then warned that the Gülen movement, whose supporters claim to uphold a modern and pacifist brand of Islam, could even pose a threat to Cambodia. He also said its schools were “brainwashing” students.

“When you ask me the question of ‘Is there any risk in Cambodia?’ Yes, of course there’s a risk,” Mr. Tug said. “We thought there wasn’t going to be any risk. We just turned a blind eye. But look at what they are capable of.”

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