Gov’t Has No Cash to Give, Premier Says

University Students Rally for Teachers

As tire-burning protests spread to the Royal University of Phnom Penh on Wednesday, Prime Mini­ster Hun Sen said his government is broke and cannot give raises to hundreds of striking teachers who have vowed not to work until their wages are substantially increased.

“We have no money at all,” he said during the ground-breaking ceremony for the Mekong River bridge project.

“Even if they strangled me and pulled out my fingernails, I would not know what to do,” the premier said, adding the problem would be solved only when the financial condition improved.

Teachers responded angrily to the statements, saying they felt ignored by the government. “The government should respond with a solution,” said Som Sophala, a teacher at Russei Keo High School. “We want a clear answer from the government.”

Meanwhile, more than 200 students from the university, the largest school in the capital, rallied in sympathy for striking teachers. The students burned tires at the university gates, sending inky black smoke onto the boulevard linking the Pochen­tong Airport to the capital.

The students threatened to march to the Council of Ministers today or Friday. “If the government ignores our demands, We will go on the march,” said Oum Sam An, a sociology student.

Teachers have been on strike since Jan 25, demanding a raise from about $15 to $315 a month, a more than 1,500 percent in­crease. The Council of Ministers offered a 20,000-riel (about $5) monthly “bonus” to teachers.

The prime minister said that the $5 bonuses are already costing the government money it doesn’t really have. The bonuses would require more money each month than the government’s “reserves” can handle, he said. “So we have to cut 70 percent of the government officials’ salaries in order to maintain the reserve budget,” Hun Sen said.

The government proposed Friday to cut the salaries of top officials by 70 percent to close the income gap between them and the teachers but did not offer a raise. Some officials make more than $2,000 a month. The offer was rejected by the teachers.

Students have repeatedly ex­pressed support for their instructors and have complained that most teachers, busy with other part-time jobs, do not have time to properly prepare for classes.

On Monday, Institute of Tech­nology students rallied and burned tires in support of their teachers, although their teachers should be returning to work today because their program is controlled by the French government.

Teachers said the students validate their efforts. “Our strike is stronger because it is supported by the students,” said Ly Phat­sem, professor of math at the Royal University of Phnom Penh.

At Sisowath High School, teachers sitting outside Wednes­day said they would continue to strike even though they know the government does not have any money to pay for raises. And teachers at Yukhonthor High School said their strike was still on because they could not survive on what they’re paid them.

“Our salary is spent in only five days,” said math teacher Ra Vuth. “Electricity, water, gasoline, food for our families, have all gone up.”

Hun Sen apologized to the teachers and said that if the government had the money, then their salaries would be higher.

“The main problem is that we have no money,” Hun Sen said. “I talked to [Finance Minister] Keat Chhon and checked with the National Treasury, and they replied that we have no money.”

He said international donors could be no help either. “If we requested loans…just to raise salaries of civil servants, they would reject it.”

Teacher representatives met with Tol Lah, the education minister, on Tuesday with no result.

The protests, in their second week, have been peaceful, with students and teachers burning tires and waving placards. How­ever, some teachers say they had been threatened by their bosses.

It is unclear how many teachers remain on strike. Teachers in at least 12 provinces were on strike at some point, according to reports gathered by local rights group, Licadho.

(Additional reporting by news services)

 

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