Though he never finished high school, Prime Minister Hun Sen notched yet another honorary doctorate in his resume earlier this month, this time from the obscure Irish International University.
In a formal hourlong ceremony at the Council of Ministers, replete with baskets of fresh flowers, banners and a red carpet, officials from the Kuala Lumpur-based university on April 10 dubbed Hun Sen “a doctor of philosophy and political science.”
Over the past decade, Hun Sen has received numerous awards and honorary degrees from universities and institutions, some of questionable reputation.
Though the Irish International University touts itself as a world-class institution, recognized by an organization called the Educational Quality Accrediting Commission, few knew much about the university’s record.
“We don’t know anything about this university,” said one official at the Malaysian Embassy in Phnom Penh. “We only know it’s based in Kuala Lumpur.”
Government spokesman Khieu Kanharith also said he didn’t “know so much” about the school.
The Irish International University, which also claims to operate out of England, but whose links to Ireland could not be established, was mentioned in an article by Asiaweek in 2000 as an example of unaccredited institutions that market degrees through the Internet.
The article quoted Damien Boyle, first secretary of the Irish Embassy in Kuala Lumpur as saying: “None of the [seven recognized] Irish universities or the National Council for Education Awards, which together represent the degree-awarding bodies in Ireland, validate any degree from the ‘Irish International University.’”
The Irish International University also appeared in a list published by The Australian newspaper in September 2002, titled “Universities to watch out for” that provided “an extensive guide to active, emerging and recent degree mills and officially unaccredited universities,” the newspaper said.
The university is not among the list of recognized schools, posted on Ireland’s Higher Education Authority Web site. The HEA is responsible for planning and development for higher education in that country.
Edwin Varo, coordinator for the Irish International University’s special awards committee, however, dismissed questions about the reputation of his school on Saturday.
Due to “globalization,” Varo said, people “should be able to practice internationally” with a degree from any university.
The school’s executive president Professor H Sandu said by e-mail that the university “is a private educational institution based on the concept of an open university in the European Union and we are not in any position to comment on any other matters.”
Khieu Kanharith also said the university’s qualifications were unimportant. “It’s not the right for the government to decide,” he said.
Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Independent Teachers’ Association, however, criticized the bestowing of the degree.
In a country where education standards are low and there is no standard accreditation process for universities, “this will have bad influence,” Rong Chhun said.
“Giving the doctorate to the head of the government is only to flatter him for good relations,” he alleged.
He added: “The head of the government did not go through university so this certificate could be worthless and it also reflects the declining education standards.”
In 1995, Hun Sen was granted an honorary doctorate in politics by the Southern California University for Professional Studies, which uses the Internet to market online degrees. Although it is recognized by the State of California, according to the university’s Web site, it is still pursuing national accreditation in the US.
In December 1996, Hun Sen was granted an honorary “comparative religion degree” from the World Peace Religious “Megaversity” and a “World Peace Award” from the affiliated World Peace Academy.
The World Peace Academy was established by Reverend Sun Myung Moon, founder of the controversial Unification Church, known for conducting mass stadium weddings of its followers.
In December 2001, Hun Sen was awarded a peace medal from the New York-based Sri Chinmoy International Peace Center. The Indian spiritual leader Sri Chinmoy has also been widely scrutinized. In a 1988 parliament session, British Conservative lawmaker David Wilshire called Sri Chinmoy’s organization “a cult, the leader of which claims to be able to lift elephants and paint 16,000 pictures a day.”
Among Hun Sen’s other awards are an honorary doctorate in law from Iowa Wesleyan College in the US, granted in 1996, as well as honorary doctorates in political science from the Dankook University in South Korea in 2001, the National Police Academy in Hanoi in 1991, and the University of Ramkhamhaeng in Thailand in 2001.
Officials from these institutions did not respond earlier this month to e-mail requests for information about their credentials and their reasons for granting honors to Hun Sen.
At the April 10 ceremony, Hun Sen, who attended along with his wife Bun Rany and several high-ranking CPP government officials, said his new degree was “a precious honor.” Meanwhile officials from the Irish International University said they were “very proud” to bestow the award.
But when pressed later, university officials were cagey as to how they chose Hun Sen to receive the honorary doctorate.
Marzuki Ujud, secretary of the university’s special awards committee, referred to a speech that was read during the ceremony, saying: “I think that [speech] explained [Hun Sen’s] achievements very well.”
The speech, read by a speaker on behalf of the university, was a nearly verbatim recitation of Hun Sen’s biography found on the government’s Web site.
Several other world leaders have also received honorary degrees from the Irish International University, Ujud said, though he mentioned only a minister in Sri Lanka, whose name he did not remember.
“The name is very long,” he said.
Asked about the university’s stance on allegations of corruption and human rights violations under the Hun Sen-led government, Ujud said the awards committee had a number of guidelines for granting the honorary doctorate. “Outside of that, we are not concerned.”
He declined to elaborate on the guidelines, however, saying “I think that is very complicated to explain to you.”
(Additional reporting by Van Roeun and Nhem Chea Bunly)