Top Gov’t Officials Fulfill Dreams of Education

Prum Sokha would wake up, his heart pounding, his brain in a panic. The dream was always the same: he was back at law school, failing his examinations.

Reality would reassert itself in two stages. His first thought was: “But wait, I’m a good student, do­ing well in my class. This must be just a bad dream.”

Then he would open his eyes and see the thatched roof of the  small hut in the countryside where he lived under the iron control of the Khmer Rouge.

Then he knew: there were no more schools. If his keepers even knew that he had been a university student, they would kill him.

It was no dream.

Prum Sokha, secretary of state at the Ministry of Interior and one its top administrators, got a rare second chance recently to recapture the dreams of his youth.

Twenty-six years after the rise of the Khmer Rouge disrupted his education, Prum Sokha recently completed a one-year master’s de­gree program offered by Sing­a­pore University and Harvard Uni­ver­sity, in the US state of Massa­chu­setts.

He joined 13 other senior government officials from China, the Philippines, Thailand, Burma, Vietnam and Singapore on a Lee Kwan You fellowship, aimed at developing regional leaders.

It was “very challenging,” he said, but added that all the hard work was worth it.

“I have been equipped with more knowledge and better understanding. I can see not only the problem, but its root, to better analyze it. My battery has been recharged and I can contribute more to my job, government and the nation,” he said.

Prum Sokha had always     wanted an education. In 1974, he was ranked 21st among the 1,800 students competing for admission to what is today the National Institute of Management.

He was also pursuing a law degree at the same time, and when the Khmer Rouge overthrew the Lon Nol government 1975, he was in his second year of law studies.

Prum Sokha said he survived the Khmer Rouge regime be­cause he transformed himself into a person who knew nothing, heard nothing, and said nothing, but worked like a slave. His friends told him it was better to appear deaf and mute than to be killed.

“A lot of educated and innocent people were killed,” he said.

The Khmer Rouge tried occasionally to trap him into revealing his education, but he said he was too clever to be caught.

After the Khmer Rouge were driven from power in 1979, Prum Sokha held a series of jobs, including policy positions at CPP headquarters and at the Ministry of Interior. He had risen to secretary of state for the ministry when, along with 49 other senior officials, he applied for the fellowship.

Only four Cambodians were interviewed for the program, and two were selected. The second Cambodian chosen elected not to take the fellowship, since it required giving up his job for a year. But Prum Sokha jumped at the chance.

“I had not been in school since 1975, but I had gained a lot of pragmatic knowledge in 21 years working in government,” he said, especially in the social, political and economic fields.

The work was difficult at first, as classes were taught in English, but they became easier over time as his language facility improved.

“When I passed the first semester, I felt confident that I would complete the program,” he said.

It wasn’t easy. Research that would take a native English speaker four hours to complete took him six or seven hours, because he needed to look up so many unfamiliar words.

But he said he enjoyed the different educational systems he found at the National University of Singapore and at the John F Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.

“This system is very good. It encourages more discussion, rather than just listening to teachers as we did in Cambodia,” Prum Sokha said.

In Singapore, 47-year-old Prum Sokha was the oldest person in any of his classes; most of the students were much younger. At Harvard, however, he saw people of all ages studying.

“Scholarship doesn’t [depend on] how old you are. If you have the commitment, you can do it. You are never too old to learn,” he said.

Prum Sokha said he was proud he earned an A-minus for his negotiating skills—the highest grade the professor awarded.

The classes were difficult, he said. In his seven weeks at Har­vard, he was assigned eight papers that had to be between six and seven pages long.

He said he is grateful the government allowed him to go, and that he would recommend similar training to all who are interested. Without the support of Prime Minister Hun Sen and Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng, he said he couldn’t have done it.

He said a few of his colleagues made fun of him for leaving his job and his extended family to go back to school, but he said the skills he has learned have made him more efficient and orderly.

Prum Sokha will have a chance to test those new skills as the government moves toward decentralization in the wake of the commune council elections, now just over one month away.

“I have learned,” he said, “that it is not just up to me to get something done. I have learned to join with other people in the government to work more effectively for the nation.”



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