Cambodia’s first teacher strike in two years got off to an uneven start Thursday, with some schools reporting universal defiance, while other teachers adopted a wait-and-see attitude or opted out entirely.
Math teacher Rong Chhun, president of the strike-leading Cambodian Independent Teachers Association, said he expects the strike to spread to more schools today. He had earlier said he expected as many as 80 percent of the nation’s approximately 80,000 teachers to go on strike.
“Before today, teachers expressed 100 percent support of our goals,” he said. “But in some schools, they have been suppressed by threats from local and provincial administrators.”
Ministry of Education officials, however, said the strike did not appear widespread, although they provided no figures. Chey Chap, undersecretary of state for the ministry, said he telephoned 10 large schools in Phnom Penh and was told no teachers were striking.
“I don’t know about the provinces, though,” he said.
Visits to area schools, however, revealed a more complicated situation. Strike posters hung at some schools were quickly torn down, in what Rong Chhun called a violation of the rights to strike and to speak freely.
Ros Sovanny, a teacher at the Toek Laok school in Phnom Penh’s Tuol Kok district, said teachers at the school went on strike, but director Chey Sophea tore down their posters and warned them to get back to work.
“We strike for better living conditions, not because we are against the government,” Ros Sovanny said. Teachers, who earn an average of between $20 and $30 per month, want an increase in wages to $100 per month; government officials say they can’t afford it.
An official from the Ministry of Education, who did not want to be named, said the ministry was reacting to the strike by keeping lists of who reports for work and who refuses to teach. That made some teachers “afraid,” he said, but added that it was not a threat.
The situation varied from province to province. Phou Tey Kok, director of education for Kampot province, said teachers in his province would not strike because they understand the government is doing the best it can.
In Sihanoukville, high school teacher Tel Samuth said “100 percent of the schools are on strike,” despite a threat by a local education official to fire any teachers who refused to work.
Instead of retreating, Tel Samuth said, teachers “hung many posters to demand salary increases for better living conditions.”
Many teachers reported being threatened by education officials and by police. Man Khy, a teacher at the Prek Taten Junior High in Koh Thom district, Kandal province, said two military police officers and four policemen were so menacing Thursday morning that some teachers were afraid to sleep at home last night.
At Sisowath High School in Phnom Penh, classes appeared to be meeting as usual, but 12th grader Phan Dara said his math teacher was on strike. Classmate Seng Bun Thong said his teachers plan to join the strike today, and he was afraid it would affect his final exams.
At Phnom Penh’s Tuol Tumpong High School, teachers were working, but it wasn’t clear for how long. “We want to strike very much, because [in 1998] our high school was the first to strike in Phnom Penh,” said one teacher, who did not want to be identified.
At Mosamak High School in Kratie province, teachers said they planned to strike next Friday.
Union strength was apparent at Rong Chhun’s school, Hun Sen High School in Kandal province, where strikers hung a dozen posters on the wall surrounding the school, outlining their reasons for walking off the job.
The atmosphere was tense inside the school compound, as dozens of teachers and scores of students gathered in uneasy groups and administrators shouted pleas through a bullhorn.
“If you have pity on the students, you will return to class,” blared one announcement from Chhi Kung, the school’s director. Kun Nuon, who teaches 12th grade geography, dismissed it with a grimace.
“Our living conditions are very, very poor,” he said. And while teachers are afraid of being fired, he said, “we have the legal right to show our feelings.”
Teachers said every teacher at Hun Sen school joined the strike, although school administrators said six teachers had taught for an hour in the morning. “They’re lying to you,” one teacher whispered after overhearing what the administrators said.
Sok Lin, a 16-year-old 12th grader, said he supports the strike wholeheartedly. “The salaries are so low, the teachers take money from the students,” he said. Chhay Nalin, 18, said that if the government raises salaries, “it will be good for students, because it will cut our costs.”
Bun Thoeun, 18, said, “It isn’t just me but every student” who supports the strike. Students said they plan to keep studying as long as the strike lasts.
School director Chhi Kung, however, said the strike may prevent students from earning semester scores, which must be posted by next Friday. “Students who do not have semester scores will not be able to take their exams” in July, and will not be able to compete with students from schools where strikes did not occur.
“If the students can’t compete in July, the parents will be upset, and sue us for not getting their children ready,” he said. “Will the teachers be responsible then?” He later ordered the posters torn down.
(Reporting by Ana Nov, Ham Samnang, Matt McKinney, Jody McPhillips and Saing Soenthrith)