Teachers say students participated in election campaign events of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), which an election watchdog says violates the Law on Education.
An Sothea, Phnom Krom High School director in Siem Reap province, confirmed that 57 teachers and students participated in a July 1 CPP election campaign event when they were let out of class in the morning.
“Students from grade 9-12 [participated], and we only took those who volunteered [to join the campaign]. They participated in the afternoon [when there was no class] because they had class in the morning,” she said.
When a CamboJA reporter asked Sothea if it was illegal for students to participate in election campaigns, she responded, “it depends on their heart to like [political parties] and they have followed their family members.”
“They didn’t get anything [gifts or money] because it was voluntary,” she said.
Another teacher, who requested to anonymity due fear of losing his job for speaking with the media, told CamboJA that Kanteu II Primary School director in Battambang province’s Banan district sent a message via Telegram ordering teachers to join a rally on the first day of the campaign with the ruling CPP.
“[The school director] told teachers they must go, not to be absent,” he said.
He said that civil servants need to have “neutrality” and if they wanted to be involved with politics, they should take a break or [request an official temporary leave] from their current job.
Kanteu II Primary School director Chhou Chheang confirmed that teachers were allowed to take part in rallies on the first day of the campaign at the CPP’s headquarters.
“Yes, [teachers participated in the campaign] in the morning on [July 1]. They [teachers] gathered at the district office,” he said. He declined to comment further.
A video posted on Facebook on July 1 also shows a group of students along National Road 3 welcoming CPP campaigners.
Education Ministry spokesperson Ros Soveacha said that the ministry has paid attention to its duties by following the Law on Education, in which it stipulates that educational establishments have to respect the principle of “neutrality.”
“The Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports has continued to carry out its work in accordance with the Education Law and the legal requirements,” he said.
He pointed out that Article 34 of the Law on Education bans political activities or propaganda for any political party in educational establishments.
NEC spokesperson Hang Puthea said that all Cambodian citizens have the right to join election campaigns and political parties.
“Supporters are not determined by their age, only voters have a set age requirement at 18 years-old [and up to be] eligible to vote,” he said. “We can’t make a conclusion on whether there is an irregularity because NEC has not received any complaints.”
He said school principals and teachers have special tasks that can give students a break at times and students can participate in election campaigns during holidays or on the weekend.
Comfel monitoring official Korn Savang said that his organization is monitoring the situation in which teachers and high school students have joined in rallies of political parties.
“It was incorrect that they participated in the election campaign,” he said. “If it is found out that [teachers] participate in election campaigning during working hours, that is a violation of the Law on Education and is prohibited for civil servants.”
He said that Comfrel has previously received information related to school closings and students participating in election campaigns in past elections. He pointed out that in 2015, Education Minister Hang Chuon Naron issued a directive banning all forms of political propaganda from those engaged at schools.
“I have seen violations of the Law on Education and people violating the education minister [Hang Chuon Naron] who said no political discussion [at school]” said Korn Savang, speaking about past elections and the current campaign period.
Ruling CPP spokesperson Sok Eysan said that Cambodian citizens have the right to participate in political activities, especially during election campaigns, and they can engage with the parties they like.
“It does not matter if they participate in electoral campaigning because there are no laws that ban that,” he said. “Civil servants and armed forces have the right to participate in politics but need to do it during their off hours.”
“They carried out campaigning when they had free hours [with no class],” he said.
He said it is wrong for teachers to mobilize students while studying to join a campaign. But if the students volunteered to participate, that is their right, as no one can force them to do so.
Cambodian Independent Teacher Association president Uk Chhayavy echoed Comfrel’s comments, saying that encouraging students to participate in election campaigns of political parties violated the Law on Education .
“The law is just written on paper, but they [the CPP] has still repeatedly done this [encouraged students and teachers to join campaigns],” she said. “They have mobilized [teachers and students] in order to show that the majority of people [support the CPP].”