Listen Up Graduates, It’s Your Prime Minister Speaking

University graduation ceremonies around the globe involve speeches—sometimes witty, often dull and, at their best, inspiring addresses in which politicians or celebrities praise students for their hard work and wish them well in their future endeavors.

In Cambodia, the keynote address is typically given by someone with a higher profile: Prime Minister Hun Sen. And graduates don’t always accept their diplomas feeling inspired.

Prime Minister Hun Sen presents a graduate with her degree at a ceremony at the Sokha Phnom Penh Hotel on Thursday in a photograph posted on the premier’s Facebook page.
Prime Minister Hun Sen presents a graduate with her degree at a ceremony at the Sokha Phnom Penh Hotel on Thursday in a photograph posted on the premier’s Facebook page.

In his role as speaker-in-chief, commencement ceremonies are perhaps Mr. Hun Sen’s favorite platform. Yet the students are rarely the focus of his monologues, with the premier often riffing on current events, threatening to shut down newspapers, declaring his love of reality TV shows or insisting that his son is not Vietnamese.

Last week, the prime minister’s graduation rhetoric took a particularly ominous tone, when he vowed to “eliminate” opponents who dare to protest against his government. The threat came in response to the CNRP’s pledge to wage mass demonstrations after deputy opposition leader Kem Sokha was sentenced to five months in prison.

“It’s not a threat, but it’s beyond a threat because it was a kind of command to eliminate whoever wants to destroy security and social order,” Mr. Hun Sen told students at the National Institute of Education in Phnom Penh last Monday.

The statement caused a number of Cambodians active on social media to question whether a graduation ceremony was the time or place for such rhetoric. Similarly, graduates interviewed last week said they would prefer the premier refrain from using a ceremony meant to celebrate their educational achievement as a platform for politicking.

“He should raise topics that are related to education,” said Nut Chantha, 28, a graduate of Panha Chiet University who sat through Mr. Hun Sen’s speech at the National Institute of Education in Phnom Penh on Monday.

“Sometimes there are some things related to politics that we should know too, but if he talks too much, it’s kind of boring,” he said. “In that environment, he shouldn’t talk about politics too much.”

On Thursday, the premier used a ceremony for University of Puthisastra graduates to announce a fragile “cease-fire” between the government and the opposition CNRP, following three days of relative calm after his threat to would-be protesters.

Taking a break from posing for selfies in their graduation gowns outside the Sokha Phnom Penh Hotel, some students criticized their leader’s penchant for pushing politics into his commencement addresses.

One graduate, who gave her name only as Sreylak, said Mr. Hun Sen likely saw the speeches as a way to mold the next generation’s political outlook and counteract the attraction many feel toward the CNRP.

“I think that he recognizes that we are all graduates and the next generation,” she said. “Mostly, we understand what is going on with his politics and the opposition party. He brings politics up to encourage us to take a look at his side too.”

The information technology major also said she found his more light-hearted forays into pop culture grating.

“He has been to many university graduations and he sometimes talks about Cambodian Idol and various other topics,” she said. “I don’t think it’s really appropriate. He should talk about education and how to encourage students to be outstanding.”

Song Sophorndara, 30, who had just received his medical laboratory associate degree, struck a different tone. Unlike many of his peers, he said the premier was right to use the platform to address his adversaries.

“I think it’s good. Because sometimes the prime minister will be accused of something and the younger generation, some of them only listen to one side. So it’s better if the prime minister uses this chance to justify himself and answer for himself,” Mr. Sophorndara said.

“This is his opportunity to use his time to respond to the other side and if he didn’t use this there would be no correspondence between the two parties,” he added.

Education Ministry spokesman Ros Salin said he approved of Mr. Hun Sen’s political pronouncements at graduation ceremonies and believed students could learn from the premier’s experience.

“He can share with those fresh graduate students to have inside views and visions and stocktakings from what he has done so far during his leadership,” Mr. Salin said. “We support that.”

“When the students graduate from university, it means they are already over 20 years old—24, 25—and to give them some information on politics is not bad,” he said.

Government spokesman Phay Siphan said Mr. Hun Sen was perfectly within his rights to take aim at the opposition when lecturing graduates.

“It’s appropriate for Cambodia,” Mr. Siphan said.

“The prime minister wants the youth to understand how to maintain this country’s peace, which is completely different from the CNRP, who incite the students to go onto the streets to demonstrate.”

Speaking outside the Sokha Hotel’s foyer last week after picking up her midwifery degree, Houen Sovannkungkea, 23, voiced distaste for her leader’s political pontifications, but said she wasn’t fazed by his efforts to influence the young generation.

“It doesn’t really matter,” she said. “We are grown up and educated so we don’t need people influencing us.”

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