Two weeks ago, Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen highlighted the nation’s wage inequalities and stated that current teachers should be grateful for their current situation in comparison to their counterparts back in the Khmer Rouge era, 35 years ago. But last week, speaking at a graduation ceremony, he stressed the need to boost education in the country. He either needs to find a new speech writer—I am desperately looking for an internship—or his stunt double seriously messed up. Nonetheless, the reluctance to provide resources for this domain puts in the limelight at least two political practices.
During the 1990’s, Cambodia implemented a set of neo-liberal structural reforms prescribed by economic institutions supported by the U.S. in order to integrate with the globalized world and to continue receiving American aid. This is what came to be known as the Washington Consensus. The market-oriented economy has allowed the country to maintain steady growth thanks to various subsidies and exports in textiles and agriculture.
Economic growth also helped alleviate poverty. While labor productivity in low value-added activities has increased (annual growth of 19.4 percent), the same cannot be said about skilled employment. Liberalization, as applied in Cambodia, led to the decrease of government involvement in the delivery of social services. Indeed, school enrollment rates are among the lowest in the region, especially at a university level. Cambodia’s post-secondary gross enrollment ratios are eight points behind Vietnam and 37 points behind Thailand.
The State now faces three main issues: Firstly it needs to clearly distinguish the roles of the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport and the Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training; secondly urban-rural disparities in terms of higher education must be addressed and finally, teacher salaries must be increased. With a higher salary, they are less likely to seek extra money through private lessons and bribes. Finally, if the educational system fails to provide a “social lift” for Cambodians, inequalities will continue and will eventually hamper economic development.
From a sociological perspective, the imbalance between social spending and military/police spending can be understood through one word: domination. Inequality is not just an inevitable reality in any society, but it is also a means of social control. The elite receive top-notch education in order to perpetuate social order. In Cambodia, children of the elite are more likely to acquire social and cultural capital to maintain their dominant status. In short, with better access to resources, stronger networks and oversea diplomas, they are more likely to succeed.
Aside from the fact that most Cambodian students will face great adversities in order to find a secure job worthy of their diploma, the leaders of tomorrow will face the same issues as their predecessors: the lack of qualified workers who can help build the economy.
Sustainable and durable development needs to be inclusive. Emphasis on military and police spending conveys social control based on repression. Every society needs to maintain social control but its application is differentiated in every country. In France, for instance, socialization is taught at school and discontent is channeled through mostly institutionalized and peaceful protests. In Cambodia, government officials tend to favor police repression or completely banning demonstrations. Of course, I do not want to denigrate the army or the police who I believe are essential in any society, but their use against protesters comes at the cost of the state’s legitimacy.
The current national crisis is a blend of complex variables which analysts are still trying to understand. But one thing is clear: The excluded population perceives inequality as the government’s fault. Indeed, the government’s role has evolved since the Washington Consensus. Inequality is no longer seen as an essential reality, but more and more as a political and social construct.
Samir Pheng is a graduate student at Sciences Po Bordeaux
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