Cambodia Needs to Increase Investment in Online Education

Sun Sokna | Ta Pen Primary and Secondary School |Siem Reap |Cambodia

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused shocking and far-reaching effects on the education of millions of students all around the world. It has forced schools and universities to shut down as countries applied staged lockdown measures to contain the spread of COVID-19. In Cambodia, all public and private schools from kindergartens to universities across the country were ordered closed in mid-March. All of a sudden, online learning has become the country’s only means for the continuation of education for Cambodian students.

By resorting to online learning or e-learning, Cambodia has been able to continue to provide education to 3.2 million students. The flexibility and adoption of online education was ad hoc and therefore posed new challenges. Problems with the lack of access to online learning platforms have led to further unequal opportunities for learning. The inadequacy of infrastructure for online education has also left a great number of students in rural areas behind, while poor technological skills among many education staff throughout the country have made online education a cumbersome job to do. All of these mean that more than three million students have to wait for the coronavirus period to pass before they could return to normal face-to-face lessons.

The old normal is not going to happen anytime soon given the current situation although the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport (MoEYS) has allowed many schools and public universities to reopen. MoEYS has been faced with real pressure to digitalize the education system overnight, mainly to respond to the disruption to education when COVID-19 vaccine is yet to be manufactured. In this situation, reforms to traditional classrooms and pedagogy are needed in order for Cambodia to catch up with that in the region and in the rest of the world.

As a national institution responsible for the education of Cambodians, MoEYS needs to continue to work with partners and the private sector to create special apps and websites for teachers and students to use. These online platforms have played a fundamental role in modernizing teaching and learning in Cambodia. Teachers and students can access these platforms at any time via smartphones or other electronic devices. However, students in rural areas still face challenges to access these platforms because some of them who come from low-income families are unable to purchase digital devices to use for their educational purposes. The internet accessibility is another obstacle as students in remote parts of the country may not have access to the internet or electricity. Thus, MoEYS needs to step up and work with all relevant stakeholders to improve access to online education nationwide.  

In addition, technical teams must be formed to help with technological issues and enable the smooth operation of online education. Technical staff should be able to play various roles, including introducing and maintaining a digital learning system, training teachers and students to use it, fixing or improving the system based on feedback from users, and giving consultation and technical assistance to principals, teachers and students. As e-learning specialists and operators, each member of the technical team should be well trained and equipped with knowledge of the teaching and learning process. More importantly, they should have good communication skills and know how to encourage, empower, and engage with teachers and students enthusiastically to build trust among the system users.

What the government must do is to continue to invest in online education on a national scale to ensure that all children can learn during and after the COVID-19 crisis without significant interruptions. Key partners and groups such as UNESCO, UNICEF, Cambodian Union of Youth Federation and other partners including NGOs and private companies can provide support necessary to establish robust online learning systems that schools and students across the country need.

I argue that Cambodia’s education system will transform itself and begin to catch up with the rest of the world only when technology is utilized to help students learn in a modern way. Modern learning devices such as smartphones, tablets, and computers as well as good internet connection with national coverage are needed. Across the world, online education systems have been widely used to support students’ learning. To enhance its competitiveness, Cambodia must increase its investment in education, including online education, as this county needs capable human resources required to achieve its development vision.

In short, Cambodia must continue to invest in online education infrastructure and engage in deep education reforms to improve the education system that can produce quality human capital to drive economic growth. It is, no doubt, vital to modernize the education system that has long been regarded as underdeveloped, characterised by the lack of quality and innovation. Cambodia needs to prioritize the development of its education system and ensure that all Cambodians, especially the young, are provided with equal opportunities receive quality education.  

Read the article in PDF 

The Author

SUN Sokna is an English Program Manager and English teacher at Ta Pen Primary and Secondary School, fully sponsored by Le Don du Choeur. He is pursuing a master’s degree in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) at the University of South-East Asia, Siem Reap, Cambodia. He obtained a bachelor’s degree in Teaching English as a Foreign Language from Build Bright University in Siem Reap. He has worked as a senior English teacher for Opportunities of Development thru Art in Siem Reap.

This article was previously published by Cambodian Education Forum on October 25, 2020

Embracing English While Preserving Khmer Identity

Kimkong Heng | The University of Queensland

While English has enabled communication across languages, cultures and countries, it has had negative effects. Not only has it led to the loss of local knowledge as research and scholarship in languages other than English declines, but it has also contributed to the devaluing of local, native languages, potentially accelerating the extinction of minority languages across the world (see Ferguson, 2007; Gibbs, 1995; Kaplan, 2001).

In Cambodia, the effect of English is felt throughout the country. English is both a bridge and a barrier. It is a bridge and a key enabling factor for educational and professional opportunities. English is a passport for local and overseas scholarships, better career prospects and enhanced networks. Knowing English is like having a special key that unlocks closed doors. Being proficient in English is, without doubt, a privilege.

English, however, can act as a barrier as well. Imagine how the Cambodian people who do not speak English are constrained by their lack of ability to use this foreign language. They may have other necessary skills and are qualified for what they do, but these people are at the disadvantaged end when it comes to personal and professional opportunities, especially ones that require interactions with people from different linguistic and cultural backgrounds. Their potential and opportunities are limited by their inability to function in an environment that requires communication in English.


The value and usefulness of English has further enhanced its dominance and significance. It has become inconceivable for Cambodian parents to not send their children to English schools or attend English classes. It is a common knowledge that the earlier children are exposed to English, the better the learning outcome is. This understanding is not illogical because, at a young age, children will be able to pick up the accent and learn correct pronunciation of English if they study with native English speakers or teachers who have good English accents.

This widely held belief has led many parents to enrol their child or children in nursery or kindergarten schools which offer English-based learning programs long before the children are eligible for formal education in either public or private primary schools. The result is that many children can speak, read, write and listen to English with relative ease. However, some of them who attend international schools offering programs in English are not able or not willing to speak or communicate with their parents or relatives in Khmer, their native language. They receive more exposure to English and find it easier to communicate in English than in Khmer.

This leads to several problems, one of which is the loss of meaningful connection or communication between children and their elderly who generally cannot speak English. For young parents, many of them can speak English, there is not a problem for them to communicate with their children. They are in fact happy to see their children speak English fluently. But when it comes to communication with the older generation (children’s grandparents and older relatives), an issue of a language barrier emerges. This is however not a serious problem, given the significance of English for children’s future. Yet from a cultural perspective, this trend does not seem to bode well for the preservation of Khmer identity and culture.

There are some extreme cases in which children, having attended only international English schools, are only able to speak but not read and write in Khmer. Some of these children may​ probably be experiencing social anxiety, isolation and low self-esteem as a result of their inability to read or write in Khmer as they live in Cambodia. Although they may have a high level of self-confidence and self-pride in an English-speaking environment, outside of such an environment they may experience an identity crisis – a difficulty to determine who they are in relation to other children who can read and write in Khmer well.

This is just one example of the bigger problem surrounding the enthusiastic embrace of English and the devaluing of Khmer language. Indeed, it is not the fault of the parents or anyone else. It is the impact of a global phenomenon and problem caused by the dominance of English as a language of many things, if not everything, including science, technology, mobility, education, trade and so on.

As language and culture are closely intertwined, the more children learn and know English, the more they would understand and appreciate Western culture. Also, they are more likely to develop into people who can be described as “Westernized” – the kind of people who love Western lifestyle, eat Western food, watch Hollywood movies and celebrate Western festivals. Some aspects of Khmer culture and customs would unfortunately appear traditional, if not obsolete, to them.

This trend has implications for all stakeholders including parents, teachers, educational institutions and the community who have pivotal roles to play in ensuring that Cambodian children and young people have the opportunity to study English while at the same time maintain their Khmer identity. Children should be provided with ample opportunities to develop their understanding of Khmer culture and that of other countries. They should be nurtured and trained to become global citizens who are open-minded, outward-looking and culturally aware and competent.

Thus, while it is crucial for children and young Cambodians to develop their English language proficiency and skills, it is also important that they maintain their Khmer identity by having a good understanding of Khmer language and culture. A loss of identity or a confused identity potentially experienced by the young generation of Cambodians is obviously not going to be beneficial for the country, its culture and people.

No doubt, in this globalised, English-dominated world, the ability to communicate in English is absolutely essential. But as the world is changing at a rapid pace, the preservation of one’s roots, identity, culture and language should be given top priorities and close attention by all concerned stakeholders at all levels. It is not about one or the other; It is about both: excelling in English and preserving Khmer identity.

Note: This article is based on a presentation the author delivered at the 2020 Teach For All Global Conference on 21 October 2020.


Ferguson, G. (2007). The global spread of English, scientific communication and ESP: questions of equity, access and domain loss. Ibérica: Revista de la Asociación Europea de Lenguas para Fines Específicos (AELFE)13, 7-38.

Gibbs, W. W. (1995). Lost science in the third world. Scientific American, 273(2), 92-99.

Kaplan, R. B. (2001). English — the Accidental Language of Science? In U. Ammon (Ed.), The dominance of English as a language of science: Effects on other languages and language communities. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

The Author

HENG Kimkong is a PhD candidate in the School of Education at the University of Queensland, Australia. He is a recipient of the Australia Awards Scholarship and a Visiting Senior Fellow at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace. He is also a co-founder of Cambodian Education Forum, an online publication platform dedicated to education-related topics.

This essay was originally published by Cambodian Education Forum on November 07, 2020

Challenges and opportunities of online learning in Cambodia during COVID-19

Chhoeurm Phearun | Cambodian Education Forum


The Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak was declared as a global pandemic in March 2020 by the World Health Organization. In the middle of March 2020, educational institutions worldwide moved to online learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In Cambodia, the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport (MoEYS) suddenly announced the closures of all schools and universities to prevent any potential widespread community transmission of the virus. Although MoEYS later announced the reopening of all schools and universities across the country, every educational institution must practice blended learning, maintain sanitation and follow health guidelines for COVID-19. 

The COVID-19 crisis has provided both challenges and opportunities for Cambodian education, particularly as regards the transformation of education from face-to-face classrooms to online learning. Because of COVID-19, educational institutions have shifted to online classes, posing enormous difficulties for teachers and students. Despite the many challenges, COVID-19 is seen as an opportunity for educational reforms and digital transformation of education. His Excellency Hang Chuon Naron, the Minister of Education, said that the challenges caused by the global pandemic can be turned into an opportunity by implementing digital education and improving the equality of accessibility and broadband internet connection.

Challenges of Online Learning amid the COVID-19 Crisis

The emergency school closure and the immediate transformation to online classes have affected millions of students nationwide. It has been reported that over 1.4 million Cambodian students are unable to access e-learning platforms during COVID-19. Having low digital competency and limited online learning-related experience and training, teachers and students especially those living in remote areas have been struggling with virtual education, causing unprecedented burdens and anxieties, stress, and other psychological problems. Lack of knowledge of how to use sophisticated online learning and communication platforms, such as Google Classroom and Zoom, together with the lack of digital literacy skills, has increased difficulties for educators and learners. 

While accommodating the contemporary changes in technology-based teaching and learning, teachers and students have encountered another significant obstacle regarding limited affordability. Some provincial students, especially those who are from low socioeconomic backgrounds, are the most vulnerable to fall behind since they do not have adequate technological devices, such as smartphones, computers, and tablets, to access their online learning, resulting in insufficient bandwidth and significantly less active performance. Although some students living in the city can afford their e-learning materials, high-cost internet services are still the inevitable issues. Yet, they also face other challenges, including noise distraction and limited digital literacy skills. 

During the school closures, even though MoEYS in collaboration with related partners immediately launched new online learning initiatives for students from grade 1 through 12 to promote distance learning and enhance optimal utilization of the information and communication technology (ICT), there are still a great number of challenges in terms of accessibility and connectivity. Students at all levels of education tended to simultaneously share similar problems, particularly unstable internet connection.

Consequently, children in some far-flung areas of Cambodia dropped out of school while some university students decided to temporarily suspend their studies, awaiting schools to reopen. Thus, the gap in socioeconomic status of students and their low digital competency have caused online learning to exacerbate the educational inequality confronting Cambodia. 

Opportunities of Online Learning during the COVID-19 Pandemic

Despite facing considerable challenges, Cambodia has made an effective emergency response to avoid community transmission, resulting in great COVID-19 success. According to Heng (2020a), “Cambodia’s COVID-19 victory needs to be acknowledged and applauded.” However,social distancing and sanitation practices are still undeniable responsibilities of every individual regardless of the reopening of schools and universities or the continuation of online classes and blended learning.

Interestingly, having been through virtual learning and teaching for over eight months, some teachers and students may have viewed this challenge as an opportunity to advance digital competence, change traditional pedagogical approaches, and accelerate the digital transformation of education.

From another perspective, off-campus learning is seen as a blessing as it enables students to improve their independent and self-paced learning through a wide variety of digital platforms. Students are able to choose their optimal study environment and suitable study time. Over 200 video lessons are available on MoEYS’ official Facebook page, YouTube channel, and other e-learning platforms, including its related partners such as Kru Cambodia and Komar Rien Koma Cheh. Therefore, students can access online learning anytime they want.

At the same time, digital education has generated extremely beneficial outcomes for educators in terms of the implementation of competency-based teaching approaches in instructional delivery. According to UNESCO (2020), “A teacher delivering video lessons noted that she received high-quality support, including new teaching approaches, learning activities, and hygienic supplies, to ensure continuous education for learners.”

Additionally, home-based learning allows parents and students to strengthen strong bonds during this stressful time. Parents can also have the opportunity to provide care and support to help children continue with their academic endeavors. For teachers and students in the city, they could save time and travel expenses when studying online.

The Way Forward Post-COVID-19

Taking into account all of the issues in the time of the pandemic, Cambodia must consider and promote the continuity of online education since it plays pivotal roles in bringing about positive change, potentially moving Cambodia toward a technology-based society. The distinctive rise of distance learning worldwide during the COVID-19 outbreak is a key indicator showing that online learning would be as useful as traditional face-to-face education if practiced in the right way.

In light of the significant challenges facing the country’s education sector from pre-primary to higher education levels, Cambodia must continue to integrate ICT into education by using a range of collaboration tools and engagement methods that promote blended learning, e-learning, and especially long-life learning.

MoEYS in collaboration with various partners must continue to bolster the capabilities of teachers and students and equipped them with distance-learning knowledge, technological literacy skills, and 21st century skills.

Reflecting on the current situation, Cambodia must maintain robust socioeconomic development to ensure that there is no significant gap between privileged and disadvantaged students in education while providing financial resources to support ICT integration to improve technological accessibility, availability of e-learning resources, and reliable internet connectivity.

Moving forward, educational research should be prioritized as it would determine the future of Cambodia, transforming the kingdom into a knowledge-based society. Heng (2020b, p. 2) argues that “Education and research are vital for Cambodia as it seeks to increase its relevance and competitiveness in the region.” Thus, having optimistic perspectives about the considerable benefits of research, the Minister of Education has been putting high efforts to promote a vibrant research culture and expand research capacities of Cambodian higher education institutions, lecturers, and students through various training research workshops and research competition. MoEYS and the Rector Council of Cambodia have, for example, organized the Annual Student Research Competition and Samdech Techo Hun Sen’s Research Prize, aimed at empowering Cambodian students to build their research capacity.

Overall, in the context of Industry 4.0, migration to online classes could be a catalyst for establishing new initiatives and methods to support student education at all levels. Quality education and research will lead Cambodia toward prosperity and development.

Read article in PDF

The Author

Chhoeurm Phearun is an intern at Cambodian Education Forum. He is a senior student pursuing Bachelor’s degrees in Professional Communication and Tourism Management in the Department of English, Royal University of Phnom Penh and the Tony Fernandes School of Business, the University of Cambodia, respectively. Currently, he is also a selected Cambodian Student Ambassador at STEP Sociovation Forum in Singapore.

This article was originally published by Cambodian Education Form on November 25, 2020

Why academic freedom in Cambodia matters?

Sorpong Peou |Ryerson University|Canada

Students receiving degrees from Prime Minister Hun Sen, photo by Sokphea Young

This is a preliminary draft on academic freedom for discussion and dialogue among interested Cambodian scholars. I attempt to answer the interesting questions posed by Sokphea Young, University College London, and executive committee of Cambodian Scholars Network.

What does academic freedom mean?

The Canadian Association of University (CATU) defines “academic freedom as the right to teach, learn, study and publish free of orthodoxy or threat of reprisal and discrimination. Academic freedom includes the right to criticize the university and the right to participate in its governance. Tenure provides a foundation for academic freedom by ensuring that academic staff cannot be dismissed without just cause and rigorous due process. But this definition is a bit too narrow. What does “free of orthodoxy” really mean?

In a general sense, academic freedom is part of broader civil liberty: freedom of expression. In a more specific academic sense, it is a freedom of inquiry that academics or faculty members enjoy. For me, as will become evident later, academic freedom is the type of freedom that scholars enjoy without any excessive institutional controls.

It is a specific type of freedom rooted in liberal education. In a nutshell, it means freedom to express one’s opinions or views or perspectives freely without any fear of retribution. This is a moral and legal concept within academic communities in democratic states around the world. Academic freedom is one indicator of whether a country is democratic or dictatorial. The question then is why do we need this freedom?

How does academic freedom matter (undermine) scholarship/ academic community?

Academic freedom matters a great deal because, without it, knowledge cannot be advanced. Fear of coming under attack or getting dismissed when scholars share their knowledge is likely to cripple creative thinking or imagination and the pursuit of truth, however one defines it. Without academic freedom, scholars would be afraid to pursue truth and knowledge that might be critical of their workplaces and governments.

The destruction of this freedom is dangerous to society. Academic freedom in Germany, for instance, was destroyed after Adolf Hitler came to power and then started World War II. By 1939, according to one source, some 45 percent of faculty members had been replaced by Nazis who supported Hitler’s war efforts. Dictators don’t like academic freedom! I could not think of a worse situation than when a political regime shut down the entire country, silenced its people by killing and intimidation, and then self-destructed. That regime was led by Pol Pot, one of the dumb dictators I have learned. Not only did he turn out to be a monster, but he also lost everything, including his life. My perspective on this is more complicated than what other scholars think.

Unfortunately, academic freedom can undermine another civil liberty: freedom of religion. The Supreme Court of Canada, for instance, ruled against a Christian university’s application for accreditation of its law school just because the university prohibits “sexual intimacy that violated the sacredness of marriage between a man and a woman.” I personally disagree on this ruling because it violates that university’s religious code, which should be respected as long as the law school teaches what other law schools teach or its curriculum does not violate the Canadian laws. This is what diversity and inclusivity are all about. One cannot talk about diversity by excluding or punishing someone who holds a different belief! This is an oxymoron.

Moreover, we still live in a world where scholars are still human and thus prone to pride (thinking that their own knowledge is superior to others without displaying any humility, which I often refer to as intellectual narcissism). Often, scholars also allow themselves to be driven by their ideologies that leave their academic communities divided. Liberals and socialists/Marxists, for instance, are hostile to each other. The world was divided during the Cold War because of two opposing ideologies: capitalism and communism.

Thus, academic freedom can be used by scholars to attack each other and even destroy their departments and communities. As head of two different academic departments, I can say that academic freedom can be misused and abused when scholars accuse each other of not adopting the right theoretical positions, the soundest methods of analysis, and the most reliable type of empirical evidence/data. I would say that all this is not about academic freedom, since freedom is really about being free from fear of attack or threat.

Overall, academic freedom is necessary for teachers and scholars to do their work to advance knowledge (regardless of their ideological positions and political orientations) without any fears of getting fired for saying something that their universities don’t like. The important logic of academic freedom in liberal education tolerance: live and let live. But with freedom also comes responsibility for the community at large. The trick is learning how to strike a balance.

What does it mean by scholarship in the academic community?

Academic freedom enables scholars, teachers and students to pursue knowledge in an independent way without subjecting themselves to any institutional control.

The scholarship is a serious business that requires one to pursue it in a way that is not politicized because it is about truth-seeking. The pursuit of truth-based knowledge is not something that can be done by one person either. None of us can know everything. What we do or discover through learning and research must be shared, questioned, discussed, and debated.

Thus, an academic community is one where its members can share their knowledge and research findings with one another and test them out with the hopes of getting helpful feedback or constructive comments for further refinement or improvement of what they know.

In short, an academic community is one whose members share the same identity as thinkers and learners with diverse interests but for a common goal: to build a better world.

How do you evaluate scholarship in Cambodia and the academic community?

I have not taught in Cambodia, so I can’t say much about this. However, I am increasingly impressed by the overall high level of scholarship in our country. There is a growing and vibrant community of scholars who have done fine work, and I am encouraged by high levels of sophistication. This is something that makes me feel proud as a Cambodian: namely, seeing other Cambodians thirst for knowledge and pursue it with perseverance.

What may concern me is the fact that scholarship in Cambodia is still too empirical: namely, too descriptive work based on evidence. There is nothing wrong with empirical knowledge, but a higher form of learning is based on deep conceptual and theoretical issues and insights, which allow scholars to discuss, dialogue and debate in order to enrich each other’s knowledge.

I understand that academic freedom is still a new idea in Cambodia because of historical and current political circumstances. But this is not uniquely Cambodian. I have taught and done research in Singapore, Japan and Thailand and come to one conclusion: most Asian countries do not fully value academic freedom. Thus, Asian scholars tend to do historical or descriptive works. This is a cultural and political problem, which stifles intellectual life.

How do you evaluate Cambodian and Western conceptions of academic freedom and scholarship?

I have not done any serious study on this question, but based on the experience I can say that the liberal tradition in Western democracies encourages scholars to come up with different, original, and innovative knowledge. One has to say something new or original to get people’s attention. Repeating what others say is a poor way to learn.

This is what writing dissertations is all about: students must know what exists in their fields of research and come up with original ideas. This is why I have made a lot of efforts to show in my teaching and research that students/scholars must know a lot, if not everything, before they can start thinking about what they propose to do and what their contributions to the existing literature would be. In one of my new book projects on Perspectives on Peace and Security on Indo-Pacific Asia, I discuss a wide range of perspectives that include different variants of realism and those in other schools of thought such as liberalism, pacifism, culturalism, social constructivism, neo-Marxism, postcolonialism, postmodernism, feminism, and others.

For me, this is one good way to learn and what I have learned is that no theory is perfect, though some are better than others. Each theory has its strengths and shortcomings. Thus, scholars are expected to be humble. If we are not humble, we can’t expect our leaders to be humble!

How to do academic writing on sensitive issues within the current political environment?

This is an excellent question: as alluded to earlier, it is difficult to pursue academic knowledge under political, social, and other constraints. Sensitive issues are difficult to investigate.

But such constraints may be a blessing in disguise for several reasons. Firstly, they force scholars to be careful about succumbing to politicization. I have studied politics but don’t like it, and the pursuit of power is not something that crosses my mind. I have studied war because I hate it. Thus, I don’t easily get politicized. Secondly, political constraints should help students engage in a kind of scholarship more theoretical and thus less known or sensitive to repressive leaders. What always saddens me most is when people continue to attack each other or their leaders without constructively addressing their common problems. Much of what is written is more about who’s right and who’s wrong or who is the good guy and the good guy. The moment people do that the world ends up with people attacking each other with no end in sight because this is the easy way of thinking. I have been attacked by some scholars like the one at Yale University for trying to make that case that violence and conflict are almost always rooted in the absence of legitimate institutions. Yes, there are bad and good guys, the good guys can also become bad. Why?

Thus, my scholarship is not about attacking anyone but more about explaining and understanding problems. I am still convinced that this kind of scholarship is one effective or productive way when one works on sensitive issues. By the way, I am still learning how to do this.

In short, scholars should do their best, when dealing with sensitive issues, by not getting personal or attacking others (such as their leaders). By taking a more theoretical (abstract) position, a scholar can make arguments that do not hurt or harm anyone but are likely to help guide their thinking. At the end of the day, a good scholar must be guided by at least two principles: fairness and love. Fairness is what most of us can agree on. Scholars should love not only knowledge but, more importantly, people. Also, to love people is to be fair with them by understanding their circumstances and showing better ways to help them behave more constructively.

How do we remain engaged academically and safely in sensitive social and political issues?

As mentioned above, do it in a fair and non-judgmental way. This is not easy to do because raw instincts can get in the way. But it’s worth working on it — one day at a time. One can be critical without being unfair or hateful or resentful or angry or too judgmental. Cambodian leaders, in particular, are not good at being subtle or diplomatic, but Cambodian scholars should be able to do this well because we are not political animals.

In this context, how do young Cambodian scholars and early career researchers survive and maneuver themselves to achieve their career goals?

For me, to be a true scholar is less about getting a dream job or getting praises from anyone else. It’s about doing what one likes and learning to think better even if current circumstances are difficult. I keep telling my students to do their best and to be the best they can be but worry less about job prospects. Jobs will come to you if you are good, but jobs will run away from you if you are not. So, my advice is as follows: first things first. Doing your best to be the best you can be and worry less about the rest. For me, faith always plays the most important role in life.

How to emancipate Cambodian scholars from a confined zone, from being considered as a Cambodian specialist/expert?

I like to think that we are creatures of habit. We keep thinking the way we always do or what others do. We are afraid to try something new, something unheard of, something strange.

One way to get away from or out of our confined or comfort zone is to be brave and broad in the way one looks at the world. So learn to think differently and read anything that may challenge your thinking. One of the things I have done is not to agree with everything what other scholars say, even if it means getting criticized or attacked. But being different does not mean being disrespectful of others. The best way to develop yourself as a good scholar is to be helpful by saying your work is a contribution rather than an assault on someone or some work.

Don’t sell yourself as a Cambodian expert! There are no intellectual markets for it, especially outside Cambodia. If you are a Cambodian, try to sell yourself as a regional or a global expert by doing more theoretical work. So when I published my first book on UNTAC (Oxford University Press, 1997), I did not say that I was a Cambodian expert. The book says my fields of expertise are International Relations and Comparative Politics. UNTAC is ONLY a case study. By doing this, you are not restricted to Cambodian studies, but you are required to know the broader fields of study. So, don’t sell yourself as a Cambodia expert but use Cambodia to help shed light on broader theoretical issues raised in International Relations or Comparative Politics or other fields unless you see yourself as someone who strictly belongs to Khmer Studies.

In sum, scholarship and academic freedom are important issues that need more of our attention and scholars, and government leaders should continue to exchange ideas about how to move forward and promote them in a bold but fair and respectful or non-threatening way. It would be nice if political leaders could understand that academic freedom is what helps their countries develop scientifically, economically, socially, and politically. But scholars must do what they can to help their leaders learn to think this way. Love and fairness may be one best way to help promote academic freedom.

Citation: Peou, S. (2020). Why academic freedom in Cambodia matters? Insights on Southeast Asia. Retrieved from in a new tab)

This article was originally published as “Why academic freedom matters” at