About 300 Phnom Penh technology students rallied and burned tires in support of striking teachers Monday, as isolated incidents of teacher harassment also surfaced around the country.
The tire-burning by students at the Phnom Penh Institute of Technology kicked off the second week of a strike that has touched at least 12 provinces and threatens the educational system.
Ruos Bunthy, vice president of the Technology Institute’s students association, said the tire burning was designed to pressure the government to negotiate and resolve the problem quickly.
“Our students will make this demonstration bigger and bigger because our program for study is limited” if the government does not solve this problem, he said through a megaphone.
Balloons urging the government to negotiate were released at the rally at the technology institute. A banner proclaimed: “Strike is our will, not politics.”
On Saturday, teachers—who are demanding a raise from about $20 to $316 a month—snubbed a government plan to defuse the crisis by cutting the salaries of top government officials by 70 percent. A pre-strike, $5-a-month bonus offer by the Ministry of Education was also rejected by the teachers as a slap in the face.
Pok Than, secretary of state for education, appealed for calm Monday and said the situation was out of the ministry’s control.
“Only the government can solve this,” Pok Than said. “I ask the teachers to be patient…and solve this problem by peaceful means. Don’t burn tires. That’s very ugly.”
Ministry of Education officials have tried to schedule talks, but the teachers are demanding to meet directly with Deputy Prime Minister Tol Lah, who also is minister of education.
It was unclear how many teachers remain on strike. Teachers in at least 12 provinces struck at some point last week, according to reports gathered by local rights group, Licadho. Those provinces are: Battambang, Banteay Meanchey, Kampot, Kandal, Koh Kong, Kompong Thom, Kompong Cham, Kompong Chhnang, Prey Veng, Pursat, Sihanoukville and Svay Rieng.
While teachers remained on strike Monday, students at least at one school—Tuol Tumpong High School in Phnom Penh—decided to hold their own classes.
Nuth Sothan, a mathematics professor at the Technology Institute and director of the study bureau, asked how the government could expect teachers to live with their current salary and not charge fees to students.
It has been widely reported that many teachers charge informal fees to students in order to supplement their salaries. Such a practice has become almost accepted, yet is criticized by good-governance organizations such as the Center for Social Development as being a form of corruption. Other teachers are forced to take a second or even third job to make ends meet.
“How does the government want teachers to live?” asked Nuth Sothan. “For example, if teachers take 100 to 200 riel every day [from students] to add to their living condition, is that what the government wants? I strongly believe the government does not want this, but then they must compromise and find a good solution for us.”
Nuth Sothan said he knows the government cannot afford to pay teachers $300 a month, but should find a compromise as well as promise to shift more of the national budget into education.
Pok Than asked teachers to give the government a year to reduce the military budget and make more money available for their salaries.
Meanwhile, reports surfaced Monday that some teachers have felt harassed or intimidated because of their activities. Meas Kheng, a teacher from Hun Sen Svay Chrum district in Svay Rieng province, said in an interview Monday that he was threatened and accused by provincial officials of leading a strike there.
He said he sought protection from a human rights organization after he was warned to watch out for his personal security. His report to rights organizations says that he was forced by provincial officials to confess being the ringleader of a strike petition signed by 91 teachers.
Svay Rieng provincial officials couldn’t immediately be reached for comment Monday afternoon.
Eva Galabru, director of Licadho, said there are also reports of a heavy police presence in Kompong Chhnang, a strike in Kompong Thom that unexpectedly stopped after one day, and the possible punishment of some teachers in Kandal province.
But she stressed that her office didn’t have concrete evidence of all of the allegations, and she spoke optimistically that peace would prevail as long as police don’t crack down.
While teachers may continue their strike because they have little to lose, “it’s unlikely it will degenerate,” Galabru said. “They are a fairly educated lot, and I think they will use self control.”