Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Non-governmental network of some 550 rural schools to shut down this week

Kirivorn school students in Preah Sihanouk province reading books donated through JRfC-WAfC. Photo from JRfC-WAfC website.
Kirivorn school students in Preah Sihanouk province reading books donated through JRfC-WAfC. Photo from JRfC-WAfC website.

A non-governmental network of reportedly more than 550 rural primary and secondary schools began shutting down Tuesday following an order of the Education Ministry.

The schools, built by the joint organization Japan Relief for Cambodia and World Assistance for Cambodia (JRfC-WAfC), are independent, nonprofit facilities. The organization stated on its website the number of its schools, explaining the facilities provided English language instruction and computer skills training to rural poor students.

A letter from Education Minister Hang Chuon Naron dated February 2 but seen by CamboJA on Monday terminated the government’s agreement with JRfC-WAfC, requiring the organization to halt its activities in Cambodia. The letter, posted on Facebook by teachers who worked at the organization’s schools, includes no specific reason for ending the agreement.

On Monday, teachers on Facebook also circulated images of staff, students and school buildings as they expressed remorse over the closures.

“Leaving with sadness that this classroom no longer has a teacher and students, after 19 years a career was finished meaningless,” read a post by Bun Sokha, a teacher at one of the NGO’s schools in Pailin province.

The longtime journalism promoter Bernard Krisher established JRfC in 1993 to galvanize support to help rehabilitate Cambodia, then devastated by 20 years of civil war. Krisher is best known as the founder and publisher of the Cambodia Daily newspaper, which was forced to shut down after refusing to pay an exorbitant tax bill amidst the government’s 2017 crackdown on political and civil society. Krisher died in 2019, and today his daughter Deborah Krisher-Steele oversees the NGO.

When reached by email, Krisher-Steele did not comment on the situation.

Two students typing on donor-provided computers at a primary school in Cambodia. Photo from JRfC-WAfC website.

 Kheav Tola, 40, was a teacher at a JRfC school in the Oral district of Kampong Speu and said he was disappointed the schools were being shut down without a clear explanation. Tola said students would come to the organization’s schools free of charge outside of public school hours.

“After shutting schools, I can see the emotional impact on children that studied with [us],” Tola said, adding that the NGO schools provided valuable English language learning to students who might otherwise not get it. “I have taught here 23 years so far, and I am greatly saddened because I have tried my best for poor students.”

Tola said he worked at a JRfC secondary school in the Tasal commune with a five-room, donor-supported building stocked with computers, printers and a library. 

Prum Kimthon, director of the Oral district education office, said he had not received any information about school closures. Kimthon referred questions to a provincial education department official who could not be reached for comment.

Other teachers who formerly worked at schools run by the JRfC expressed similar regrets as Tola. Tes Sovanren, who worked from 2008-21 at a primary school supported by the organization in the rural Rovieng district of Preah Vihear, said she was saddened when she heard of the closures. 

“The school has helped a lot of children with English teaching and computers, without paying money,” Sovanren said.

Primary state school director Touch Kimsruon, from the Svay Chrum district of Svay Rieng province, was aware that the ministry decided to close the NGO school program but did not know the reason.

“I have just learnt yesterday [Monday] after seeing the announcement of the ministry, and I haven’t yet received further instruction,” he said.

He said the JRfC school had in some years been suspended due to a lack of teachers. Still, Kimsruon said students who passed through the school had been able to advance easily to higher levels with the education they received there. 

Education Ministry spokesman Dy Khamboly told CamboJA he hadn’t received information about the closure of JRfC schools but said there was “no need to care about it”.

“I request that if not necessary, no need to provoke on such an issue, there are lots of stories to be published,” Khamboly said. “Why is it necessary to disseminate this simple story?”

Education Minister Naron could not be reached for comment.