The thousands of young Cambodians who flock to private schools every day to practice their English-language skills had some kindred company on Monday: Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng.
In front of several hundred international guests at the closing ceremony to the Asean Tourism Forum, Sar Kheng put his own emerging English reading and speaking abilities on display in a two-page speech he gave to delegates at Chaktomuk Theater.
It was only the second time Sar Kheng, who was chairman of the organizing committee for the ATF and is co-minister of Interior, had spoken English in public, ministry spokesman General Khieu Sopheak said. The minister understands and speaks French and Vietnamese, but normally uses a translator when he meets English-speaking foreign guests.
“But he can understand some English,” Khieu Sopheak said. “Sometimes he corrects my translations.”
Phnom Penh Governor Chea Sophara also gave a speech in English at the ATF, speaking before a crowd of about 1,000 at the opening ceremony.
The governor speaks Chinese and Vietnamese, and often gives speeches in English, municipal Cabinet chief Mann Chhoeun said. Soon, Chea Sophara plans to deliver his first speech in French, Mann Chhoeun said.
Cambodia’s quest to join the World Trade Organization and its role this year as chairman of Asean—the regional grouping in which English is used to conduct diplomatic business—has put an even greater premium on English and other foreign-language skills, Mann Chhoeun said.
Many government officials spent the 1970s either fighting with or against the Khmer Rouge. In the 1980s, interaction with foreigners was also limited, due to civil war and diplomatic isolation.
Now, with political stability and a continued desire to increase both the number of tourists and the amount of foreign investment, top ruling party officials are showing off their newfound linguistic skills.
“This is the time to show that the CPP, too, can speak English to foreigners,” Mann Chhoeun said.