Since 1997, Prime Minister Hun Sen has put his name to 2,232 schools across the country. With the giant initials emblazoned in Khmer on the roof of each one, few Cambodians can miss the point: Education came to their commune courtesy of their prime minister’s personal generosity.
But some observers last week labeled the schools poorly constructed symbols of an ongoing political campaign, directed at a public ill-equipped to differentiate between a state-funded facility and the gift of an individual.
Hun Sen’s Cabinet office estimates that the average Hun Sen school consists of five classrooms, and costs $20,000. With more than 2,000 such schools across Cambodia, approximately $44,640,000 had been spent on the program as of March 5, according to a Cabinet representative who asked not to be named.
This mammoth sum comes from a number of sources, the Cabinet official said. “Sometimes private companies offer Hun Sen money to build schools, and then they put his name on them. Also, NGOs offer the money and then put Hun Sen’s name,” he said.
“This is not corrupt money, like some people say. Some NGOs and private companies ask Hun Sen to inaugurate schools when they finish them—that’s why some people get confused that the schools belong to Hun Sen,” he said.
But Kem Sokha, director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, on Tuesday described Hun Sen’s school-building program as inherently undemocratic: “According to democratic principles, [Hun Sen] is voted prime minister,” Kem Sokha said. “So if he gets money for development from donors, it is not his money; it is the people’s money.
“Hun Sen builds schools as political campaigning: It’s vote-buying. It is the government’s duty to build schools—there’s no need to put his name on them,” he said. “If Hun Sen wants to build a school, he should ask donors to give the money to the Ministry of Education.”
In a faxed statement, a representative of the Cambodian Independent Teachers’ Association seconded this perspective. “Although the government is led by whichever political party, in developed countries, people don’t rely on the gifts of the prime minister.
“It is the duty for the government to build schools…using the national budget transparently, in order to avoid any corruption. Hun Sen pretends to be a kind person who donates his money to build schools…but he uses corrupt money and puts his own name,” the statement claims.
Schools are not the only “gift” offered by the prime minister; roads, bridges and other basic facilities also come under this category. “Hun Sen also puts his name on roads and bridges. These should be funded by the Ministry of Transportation and Public Works, or the Ministry of Rural Development,” Kem Sokha said. “ I think he should close these ministries; he does everything by himself.”
The Cambodian Independent Teachers’ Association concurred: “The association thinks that in every country in the world, constructing infrastructure such as bridges, roads, schools and hospitals is the duty of the government.”
Most communes in Kompong Cham, Kandal and Kompong Speu provinces boast a Hun Sen school, although few school children in Kep or Oddar Meanchey have ever seen one. According to Cabinet office statistics, Hun Sen schools are concentrated in areas that generally have higher rates of literacy, and are more densely populated.
Often, existing schools are renamed as Hun Sen schools after just minor modifications, according to Sam Rainsy parliamentarian Son Chhay. “Sometimes a school becomes a Hun Sen school not by being rebuilt or getting a new building, but just by being repainted,” he said.
This practice not only makes it extremely difficult to identify the numerous schools that all share the same name; “It also upsets many people who were originally involved in building these state schools,” Son Chhay said. “It confuses the students and the people.”
Education workers also claim schools are often hurriedly built and poorly constructed, with very little follow-up funding, while teachers complain of little or no pay, according to the Cambodian Independent Teachers’ Association. “The schools are not built well, and the buildings are not good quality. The walls are fragile—sometimes they fall down after just one year,” the association wrote in its statement.
And if an existing school happens to lie on a valuable piece of real estate, Hun Sen is likely to bestow the gift of a full-scale relocation, according to Son Chhay.
“Take the example of Kruos primary school in Siem Reap, which was built on what had become a very valuable site in the middle of the town, next to a hotel owned by a CPP official,” he said. “It was decided to relocate the school to another, less valuable site and rename it a Hun Sen school. The hotel next to the old site expanded shortly afterwards,” he said.
The proportion of the national budget assigned to education is currently about 18.5 percent, according to Catherine Dom, an adviser to the Ministry of Education on financial issues. But that budget contains no allocation for the construction of school buildings, which are classified as a capital investment, she said.
A report called “The Cost of School Cluster: Unicef/Sida’s Contribution and Others, 1993-1997,” written by Zhang Minxuan in May 1998, described Hun Sen schools as a unique form of government investment in education.
“Political contribution on school building is the largest capital investment in primary education in the country in the middle 1990s,” Zhang Minxuan wrote. “It is an exceptional phenomenon in Asia. As many of the politicians hold leading civil servant positions, part of their donation might be considered as part of government capital investment, especially as there has been no capital budget for school buildings for the past few years.”
Russell Peterson, director of NGO Forum, considers the school-building program a way for businessmen to purchase influence. “Schools are being built through the prime minister’s business connections, which helps [businessmen] to get okhna status and various other privileges from the government,” he said.
Son Chhay went further: “ It has become the way the country has legalized corruption, and it makes the people think they are benefiting from it,” he said.
Tax evasion is just one of the reasons a powerful businessman and allies of the prime minister may decide to invest in a Hun Sen school, he said. “CPP officials and businessmen who donate money for the schools use it as a way to avoid paying tax, and it also gives them the power to abuse the system, take land, and gain influence.” The Sam Rainsy Party estimates up to $400 million in government revenue is lost per year in unpaid taxes; “The Hun Sen schools system is just a part of that,” Son Chhay said.
“The money comes from private donations from businessmen,” Kem Sokha said. “I think [Hun Sen] should do it a different way, because maybe he gives the businessmen something in return. I think he should make it more clear where the money comes from.”