A long-haul fight during COVID-19: A risky journey from the UK to Southeast Asia (Cambodia, Singapore)

Dear Insights on Southeast Asia

I have enjoyed reading this new blog for a while. As a contribution to the blog, I am writing to share my flight experience from the UK (London) to Southeast Asia (Cambodia) via Singapore. I hope this experience is worth sharing to readers who wish to fly from the UK or Europe Cambodia. In this journey, I will also compare how the UK or probably even the whole EU, handle travellers to contain COVID-19 at London Heathrow Airport with Southeast Asian nations (Singapore, Cambodia). After experiencing about nine months lockdown and living in a square room and coping with stress, last month, I decided to travel to Cambodia, my home country, as I see COVID-19 in the country was not much worse compared to the UK, between 16,000-19,000 cases per day. However, the recent outbreak in Cambodia has disappointed my plan, but I have to fly because I already paid for the airfare.

Almost two months ago, before flying or choosing airlines, I did some researches and asked friends who had experience of a long-haul flight (up to 15 hours in total to exclude layover). I chose Singapore Airline. There are flights via South Korea, Thailand, and Japan, but I chose Singapore Air in term of airfare, service and safety measures.

A month before my departure, I prepared 4 3M/N95 masks (1: for inflight, 1: transit, 1: another flight, and 1 when you landed in Cambodia), a transparent face shield, hand sanitiser jells, cough sweets, and diarrhoea and flu tablets. I like cough sweet the most, even I am healthy, but it is very dehydrated on 13 hours flight from London to Singapore. I took immune pills two weeks before the flight to boost my immune system. I BELIEVE THIS IS ESSENTIAL EVEN YOU DO NOT TRAVEL BY AIRE. I STRONGLY RECOMMENDED N95 Mask as in the photo. Unlike other masks, this one is much convenient because when you speak your lips will not touch the mask layers. Imagine 13 hours flight, you will smell YOUR OWN MOUTH and get sick by that.

To the Airport. Compared to public transportation: buses and underground trains, I would spend some money on a private taxi, or Uber to be safe. Travel alone is better than with unknown herds using public transpiration services. You may know that the spike of COVID cases in the UK is linked to public transportations. London underground is a crowded since they do not have proper seat arrangement, social distancing and space between travellers to avoid close contact.


At London Heathrow. I arrived at the airport about 2.5 hours before the flight. At Terminal 2, there was no standard social distancing arrangement besides queueing from the passenger drop off section to the check-in counters.  Not many cared about social distancing, 2 or 1.5 meters apart from each other, even FACE COVER (they called it that, not a mask; I FOUND FACE COVER unhelpful) is compulsory inside the terminal. At the check-in counter, I was asked to present a health certificate: COVID-19-free. I was exempted since I was travelling to my home country (I will explain that it is not helpful at all). After checking in, I went through a security check, and again there was no proper arrangement beside lining, not even 1.5 meters apart. THIS MIGHT BE THE CASE WHY THE TRANSMISSION RATE IN THE UK or EU increased sharply after first or second waves or lockdown.

Inside Heathrow’s departure terminal: Shops are opening, and as you know, BLACK FRIDAY remains, and you can still enjoy duty-free shopping. Discount everywhere. You can kill time and wander around shopping, and some of them do not respect social distancing.

Before boarding: I had temperature checked by Singapore Airline staff and was called by our row and seat number to board the flight, to avoid the crowd. Before entering the plane, each of us gets a health kit bag containing a hand sanitiser, a mask, a wipe, and a bottle of water.

In the plane: we were arranged to sit with empty seat/ space in between seats we were assign (unless you know each other you can chose to seat together). IT IS AN EXCELLENT IDEA, and I FELT SAFE instead of sitting next to an unknown person (I MET a CAMBODIAN STUDENT FROM AUSTRALIA said her flight from Brisbane to Singapore arranged seat the same mine). ONE IMPORTANT NOTE is that if you could check online and select your preferred seats would be great. I DID SELECT SEAT in advance. I would recommend those at the EXIT AREA, LAST ROW, and ROW against the laboratory seats to avoid being SURROUNDED. If you cannot do that, you might be lucky to sit next to those EU/UK citizens who have COVID-19-free certificate. I WOULD FEEL SAFE TO SIT NEARBY THESE FOREIGNERS WHO HAD TEST NEGATIVE to board the flight. Test negative for COVID-19 is a must to travel to another country that is not your home.

Layover in Singapore. It was very unfortunate that I had 8 hours of layover in Singapore. All passengers were disembarked row by row, about 3-5 rows at a time. Those who transited at Changi Airport were well directed by a guide to the transit hall. TEMPERATURE WAS TAKEN as soon as you disembark, and BEFORE ENTERING THE transit HALL. Wrist bands were given to identify us as layover passengers. There, we were not allowed to move around like in London. If you want to eat and shop, you need to order online (there is a banner instructing how to do so). Duty-free shopping need to be placed at least 8 or 12 hours in advance. I THINK THIS IS WHY SINGAPORE COULD CONTAIN COVID-19 TRANSMISSION and or imported CASES. To avoid a close contact with other passengers, I located myself somewhere at the corner of the hall.


SINGAPORE-CAMBODIA: Before boarding, we were again asked to queue about 10-20 passengers each line with at least 1 m apart. They rechecked our temperature. A number of Cambodian flocks flown (mostly) from Malaysia joined us. The guide/staff navigated and led group by group to the security check. AGAIN, We were given health kit as we board. But, UPON BOARDING I WAS DISAPPOINTED THAT THE AIRLINE (Silk Air, a regional subsidiary of Singapore Airlines) did not follow the long-haul flight standard mentioned above. All seats were occupied except three rows left empty as the flight attendant told me that they reserved for quarantine or in case if anyone gets sick they would isolate him or her there. I AM DISAPPOINTED that we were asked to stay apart during the transit but HAD TO PACK US TOGETHER in a tinny Airplane. EVEN MASKS are still compulsory, but we sit close to each other. From HERE YOU DO NOY TRUST your CAMBODIAN FELLOWS since, like me, THEY DIDN’T COVID-19-Free certificate. IT seems Singapore does not care when they send travellers out of their country. THIS MIGHT BE THE CAUSE of COVID-19 transmission and importing CASES to CAMBODIA. The Government of Cambodia should instruct incoming flights to follow space inside the plane.

FOOD dining is the most CONTAGIOUS time in this small flight. When foods and drinks were served, everyone removed masks and dug in. THIS IS a risky time, but I DID NOT EAT UNTIL the nearby passengers ate. BUT, I WAS LUCKY ENOUGH TO SIT NEXT TO A FOREIGNER. AS I TOLD YOU BEFORE, THEY WERE ONCE TESTED NEGATIVE up to 72 hours before boarding the flight.

Food and drink served Singapore-Phnom Penh

LANDING in PHNOM PENH. Again, DISAPPOINTED since passengers compete to get out of the plane, and the cabin crews did not advise them to disembark row by row like the long-haul flight. NO SOCIAL DISTANCING at all.

Passengers were about to disembark

IMMIGRATION CHECK and COVID-19 TESTING. I think many have written on this aspect, I should not spend more time on this. We had to fill out health status and condition and presented to the Health Officer to inspect. AGAIN, WE NEED TO line up, and there was no social distancing practice (by passengers). YOU KNOW THAT THE AIRPORT IS SMALL; it cannot follow Singapore. From there you will be given a form to fill out your choice of QUARANTINE ACCOMMODATIONs: Free and private hotel. In the form, you must include your personal info, and contact information (phone and e-mail). As I once heard about the condition of free accommodation, I CHOSE HOTEL as I will need to work during this period. AS I SAID BEFORE, it is a must now that all passengers are required to quarantine 14 days at the hotel and the free accommodation, not two days to get the test result and check out to quarantine yourself at home.


I proceeded to collect my baggage and presented the health information form to the doctors who interviewed where about I would stay after the quarantine period (part of the contact tracing).  From there, samples were taken from your mouth and noise. You will be asked to remove your face mask. Upon the samples were taken, you must wear you mask immediately as I believe it is where people were asked unmask; it can be a CONTAGIOUS area. DON’T be scared, ALL DOCTORS and OFFICERs were equipped with Personal Protection Equipment’s (PPE).

Waiting to be transferred to the hotel by a bus

Transferring to the hotel was complicated as well. AGAIN, NO SOCIAL DISTANCING AT ALL. It was confusing as not many officers could speak English well. Some foreigners joined different queues: hotel and free accommodation. It took about 2 hours to get ready on the bus to the hotel. Both foreigners and Khmer passengers were frustrated with the arrangement. I THINK IT IS TYPICAL BUSINESS AS USUAL IN THIS COUNTRY.

I will tell you more how I felt when I was transferred to the hotel. It is again a typical thing. Stay tuned!

If you have questions, please comment and I will respond.

How Cambodia’s Ratanakiri province becomes the first Khmer Rouge controlled area?

In the 1960s, the northern province of Ratanakiri of Cambodia, predominantly inhabited by indigenous populations, became a scene of virulent armed confrontation between Prince Norodom Sihanouk’s regular army and Cambodian ultra-Maoist dissidents. The latter came first in 1965 to hide out in the forests, along the Cambodia-Vietnam border region. The ground was not virgin against the royal power, indigenous popular uprisings—already supported by the Vietminh troops broken in guerrilla warfare—had prepared the ground. The forthcoming leaders of a nation-wide terror regime (April 1975-December 1978) skilfully managed to take advantage of these local revolts, at first with the Jarai, Lao, Brao and Kachok people, by giving them a new meaning and simultaneously concealing from the populations of the province their intention to establish a totalitarian regime. Ratanakiri province became the first Khmer Rouge controlled territory in 1970.

Many have argued that a great majority of autochthonous (or indigenous) people have been complicit with the Pol Pot regime, mostly in Ratanakiri Province. This is not a Truth and is a misleading claim. In reality, indigenous people have been, like most human beings in Cambodia, not only victims of this ultra-Maoist regime, but also the first who suffered from the Khmer Rouge brutality from early 1971 onwards, more than four years before the fall of Phnom Penh. All ethnic minorities in Ratanakiri started to be threatened and defenceless, long time before the overwhelming majority of the Khmer population, with forced labour, famine, sickness, family separation, torture and mass killings. And nobody elsewhere was aware of this ongoing ethnic genocide.

Long after the civil war and once the order was restored, the indigenous populations—who were among the first victims of the Angkar (the revolutionary ultra-Maoist organization)—started to be indiscriminately associated (by the Cambodian population, some journalists and scholars) with the Khmer Rouge genocide. Such a misunderstanding is rooted in a denial of history mixed with an insidious form of ethnic xenophobia. To render memory and justice to the Cambodian indigenous populations living in the northeast, it is important today to study the impartial history of these misjudged ethnics.

These are key arguments of Frédéric Bourdier’s new book entitled “Time of war, time of revolt with the autochthonous populations of Cambodia. The emergence of the first Khmer Rouge controlled area in Ratanakiri (1967-1971), Paris, 2020, L’Harmattan, 166p (French version).

Cover photo by Michael Vickery, in the early 1960s or 1970s

This book can be bought from here

Temps de guerre, temps de révolte chez les populations autochtones du Cambodge : Première assise populaire khmère rouge à Ratanakiri (1967-1971)

Au cours des années soixante, la province septentrionale de Ratanakiri, majoritairement habitée par des populations autochtones, devint un théâtre d’affrontement acharné entre l’armée régulière du prince Norodom Sihanouk et les dissidents ultramaoïstes cambodgiens. Le terrain n’était pas vierge : contre le pouvoir royal, des soulèvements populaires, soutenus par les troupes vietminh rompues à la guérilla, avaient préparé le terrain. Les maquisards cambodgiens, futurs leaders d’un régime de terreur, surent habilement tirer parti de ces révoltes locales et leur conférer un tout autre sens, dissimulant aux populations de la province leur intention d’instaurer un régime totalitaire. C’est à Ratanakiri que s’établit, dès 1970, la première assise khmère rouge.

Bien après la guerre civile et une fois l’ordre retrouvé, les populations autochtones – qui furent parmi les premières victimes de l’Angkar (l’organisation révolutionnaire ultramaoïste) – seront associées sans discernement au génocide khmer rouge. Un tel contre-sens puise ses sources dans un déni de l’histoire mêlé à une forme insidieuse de xénophobie ethnique : cela tient de l’irresponsabilité. Pour rendre mémoire et justice aux populations autochtones du Cambodge, il importe aujourd’hui que cette histoire soit restituée. C’est ce qui est réalisé dans cet ouvrage, en suivant les trajectoires d’un adolescent des hauts-plateaux de Ratanakiri, de sa famille et de son clan.

« Ce livre offre un aperçu fascinant et révélateur du génocide cambodgien ainsi que du conflit avec le Vietnam qui l’a accompagné et l’a en partie défini. » (Ben Kiernan, préface)

Frédéric Bourdier est anthropologue à l’Institut de Recherche pour le Développement (IRD) et à l’Université Paris 1 Panthéon Sorbonne. Il travaille depuis une vingtaine d’années en Asie du Sud-Est, principalement au Cambodge. Une grande partie de ses livres et articles traite des racines et du destin des populations autochtones, des relations nature/société et de l’anthropologie critique du développement.

Economic development and cultural genocide in Cambodia

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Frédéric Bourdier | Anthropologist | IRD France

Cambodia is home to 24 Indigenous peoples speaking Mon-Khmer and Austronesian languages. Numerically important groups are the Tampuan, the Kuy, the Bunong, the Jarai, the Brao and the Kreung. While the exact population of these ethnic groups is controversial, they constitute about 2-3% of the national population, between 350,000 and 400,000 individuals as of 2020. Some recuse their ethnic identity because of social discrimination, intermarriage, migration, urbanization and diverse processes of acculturation. Indigenous people’s territories are scattered in 15 provinces (out of 24), but a majority is located in the three north-eastern provinces (Preah Vihear, Ratanakiri and Mondolkiri). While they are not disaggregated in the national census, human right groups maintain that Indigenous Peoples face discrimination and coerced displacement from their lands that is extinguishing them as distinct groups. Scientific investigations confirm that these patterns are driven by ongoing state and transnational corporate ventures for resource extraction and land conversion (timber, minerals, hydro, and agro-industrial plantations), coupled with the growing in-migration from other parts of the country. National authorities regularly deny these assertions under the guise of an expected “national economic development for all”.

It is admitted that the principal adversaries of indigenous territorial and land claims in Cambodia, and by extension throughout the world, are the protagonists of a neo-liberal economic model that has impoverished and dispossessed major sectors of rural societies, blocked the improvement of locally based production (subsistence and commercial agriculture), and promoted capitalist expansion by excluding local populations. In the absence of any reliable mechanisms to secure land, many of the fertile and forested areas, traditionally occupied by autochthonous groups, started to be coveted by agribusiness companies, multinational consortia and wealthy politicians for monoculture exploitation: rubber, cassava, and cashew (north-east), sugarcane and corn (north).

Funeral ceremony, Andong Meas district, Rattanakiri. Photo by Frédéric Bourdier

After a decade of Vietnamese occupation, Cambodia has followed a free-market ideology. In the 1990s, Cambodia’s economy relied on external financial support, but socio-political elites constantly captured the bilateral/multilateral aid from the West. Insufficient allocation redistribution for the general population and feebleness of public services reinforced social and economic inequalities. Furthermore, the 2001 Land Law, a by-product of Western aid, with improved additional legislations for monitoring Economic Land Concessions sanctioned by the sub-decree in 2005, offered legal tools for granting Economic Land Concessions to national and international (joint-venture) companies, even though Article 29 of the same Land Law states that “no authority outside the community may acquire rights to immovable properties belonging to indigenous communities”. Indigenous Peoples expected that the 2002 Forest Law would lead to a substantive remedy for protecting their lands, but it led to the contrary (extensive logging by officials and local Khmer/Indigenous elites). In 2004, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia ratified a Master Plan, of which Ratanakiri Province was the epicentre. Once a remote area, nearly exclusively inhabited by non-Khmer populations, the province became a destination not only for landless migrants but also for politically connected opportunists, absentee landlords, and foreign corporations, due to its geostrategic position, Cambodia-Vietnam borderland region with fertile basaltic soils.

Illegal logging with the complicity of military forces, Ratanakiri. Photo by Frédéric Bourdier

Leading developers/policy-decision makers keep on arguing that Indigenous peoples have to adapt to the contemporary economic world. Cambodia has to be competitive and must attract Foreign Direct Investment to advance the country’s economy as well as to modernize rural areas like the north-eastern provinces. Megaprojects constitute the ongoing skeleton of modernity. Subsistence agriculture and worse again slash and burn cultivation are mere testimonies of the past that can be confined to local places (for ecotourism purposes, under the label of cultural heritage) but which cannot contribute to the economic growth of the Kingdom. Land concentration restricts small scale ownership but, according to national authorities, will contribute to maintaining labour forces, providing Indigenous peasants “reasonable” daily wagers.

Dispossessed indigenous families work for a rubber plantation in Bokeo, Ratanakiri. Photo by Frédéric Bourdier

Working for others has always existed in a context of exchange of services among indigenous groups. Reciprocity conditions its acceptability. But the idea to be permanently or even seasonally employed is less conceivable, even for the Indigenous farmers having small plantations who prefer to recruit lowland workers. Disinterest for agrarian paid work in the plantation prevails. A job with restricting hours appears incongruous and unthinkable to the vast majority, except for the Indigenous landless families who have no other option. As a result, investors and companies recruit experienced Khmer and Cham from the lowland valley to work in their plantations located in indigenous territories. These skilful in-migrants and workforces decide to settle permanently (more jobs, better weather, less pollution, the myth of “abundance of nature”), and these, therefore, contributed not only to land speculation and socio-ecological conflicts but also exacerbated tensions between autochthonous people and new business-minded settlers. This new population have in turn convinced relatives and friends to flock into the indigenous people’s territories for lucrative business opportunities, opening small businesses, being seasonal workers, suppliers and contractors, or elaborating a partnership for a development project (transport/delivery services, construction, training, collective land acquisition).

Frédéric Bourdier is a senior anthropologist from the national scientific research centre from France (Research Institute for Development: IRD) and the University of Paris Panthéon-Sorbonne. He started conducting ethnographic work in Cambodia (1994-1995), with the aim to compare the social ecology of various autochthonous communities in Ratanakiri Province – Tampuan, Kachok’ and Jarai. Since 2004, he came back to the Kingdom (after ten years spent in Brazil Amazon, South India, Columbia, China and Cuba). He has been in charge of two programmes focussing on health policies and the socio-political mobilisation of the civil society in the fight against HIV/AIDS. He has been also involved in an ethnogenetic program in the Highlands, in a critical research insisting on the impacts of development on the livelihoods of the forest peoples. After being in charge of an interdisciplinary malaria research, an ethno-historical investigation of the rise of the Khmer Rouge in Ratanakiri in the sixties, he is actually organising anthropological surveys of the green economy in Cambodia. He periodically returns to Ratanakiri in the villages where he previously lived.

Citation: Bourdier, F (2020). Economic development and cultural genocide in Cambodia. Insights on Southeast Asia. Retrieved from https://sea-insights.com/2020/11/30/economic-development-and-cultural-genocide-in-cambodia/

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.  

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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

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.

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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 https://sea-insights.com/2020/11/23/why-academic-freedom-in-cambodia-matters/(opens in a new tab)

This article was originally published as “Why academic freedom matters” at https://www.sorpongpeou.com/post/why-academic-freedom-matters


How Chinese investors build patron and client networks to secure their investment in Cambodia

Sokphea Young |University College London|UK

This piece explains: i) how the new generation of Chinese investors and companies acquire licenses in a host country of a predominant Sino-diaspora community, and ii) how these Chinese investors and companies instill patron-client networks to influence regulations and secure business in the host country. It will address these topics by drawing on existing literature, field interviews and observation. It will begin with a brief overview of the relations between China and Cambodia, and other Western count parts. It will then illustrate how Chinese aid and trade have been playing a significant role in Cambodian business and regulatory frameworks by drawing on political culture and patronage-clientelism concepts.

Chinese diaspora and China’s relation within Cambodia

Contemporary Cambodia-China relations can be traced back to just before the collapse of the French protectorate in Indochina. In September 1947, China established its Phnom Penh consulate[1] although the first generation of Chinese migrants probably began settling in Cambodia as early as the late 12th century when Zhou Daguan visited the Khmer Angkorian Empire. In the early 1950s, there were approximately 3,000 Chinese living in Phnom Penh alone[2]. As a business strategy, the Chinese migrants established good connections with Cambodians who were wealthy or were officials working for the French administration. Since then, the ties between Chinese migrants and Cambodian elites has become entrenched and been maintained, up to and including the current younger generation[3]. This has shaped how the younger Chinese generations in Cambodia, commonly known as Sino-Khmer or Sino-Cambodia, operate their small and large-businesses in the country.


Politically, following the collapse of the French protectorate in 1953, the leaders of the two countries (Zhou Enlai and Norodom Sihanouk) met in 1955 at the Bandung conference, where their relationship became closer[4]. Due to geopolitical turbulence and intervention, especially by the US War with Vietnam—which trampled the neighbouring countries of Cambodia and Laos—the region became engulfed by civil war. Beginning in the early 1970s, when Nororom Sihanouk was deposed by a coup orchestrated by the pro-US General Lon Nol of Cambodia, the relationship between China and Cambodia become volatile, even though Shihanouk’s tie with China remained the same. After defeating the pro-US government, the Khmer Rouge’s communists re-established the bilateral relationship with China, from 1975 until 1979, and maintained contact until their surrender in the last battle in 1998. China then re-established a relationship with the new government that emerged from the United Nations organised-election in 1993.

After the election, there was an influx of European and US trade and aid into Cambodia (similar to what occurred in Myanmar after their 2015 election). The inflow of Chinese aid and trade did not draw much attention from the US and EU donors until the 2010s, when China’s economy surpassed some of the world biggest economies, and when China’s Belt and Road Initiative officially launched in 2013. Compared to other donors, the EU had been the most generous donor in terms of grants, followed by NGO core funding, and the US. But as of 2010, China alone is the biggest donor to Cambodia (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Foreign aid to Cambodia (US$ million)[5]

Following the 1998 elections, Cambodia reformed its economy by amending investment laws and regulations to attract foreign capital as well as to integrate Cambodia into the region, and into the larger global economy. Cambodia’s trade with the US has benefited from the granting of a “Generalised System of Preference”, which allows the country to export duty-free products into the US market. Because of this, a huge number of garment factories were opened and operated within Cambodia. In 2001, Cambodia was listed as a least developing country, able to receive the EU’s Everything But Arms (EBA) trade preference, which allowed Cambodia to export products to EU countries, tariff and quota-free. The inflow of foreign capital also increased significantly starting in the early 2010s, from around US$800 million in 2010, to more than US$1billion in 2012-13, and US$3.5 billion in 2018 (Figure 2). While intra-ASEAN investments played a significant part in this rapid inflow of capital, China alone has provided approximately 20.40% of total foreign investment to Cambodia, and has thus become the single most important strategic investment partner to Cambodia.

Figure 2: Total foreign investment to Cambodia (US$ million)[6]

However, Cambodia has been ranked low in ease of doing business enabling environment ranking, placed at 138th out of 190th (World Bank, 2019)[7]. The enforcement of regulations is generally weak and uncertain, as admitted by investors[8],[9]. This has caused obstacles for most Western investors, but not for China. Since 2005, the inflow of Chinese investment exploits the government’s economic policies, including the privatisation of public resources, such as land, water, forest, and mines, by endorsing a number of regulations, such as the economic land concession (ELC) in 2005[10]. Foreign investors, including the Chinese, have flocked to Cambodia to acquire licenses for resource extraction. Investing in real estate has also been popular among Chinese individual investors and companies. One of the most popular areas is the coastal area is Sihanouk province, where casino and real estate are owned predominately by Chinese businessmen. These investments, though not all, often sparked grassroots communities’ reaction against the regulatory enforcement of license permits[11].


Cambodia’s socio-political culture, patronage and clientelism

The uncertainty in Cambodia’s regulatory enforcement appears to oppose the deregulation or race to the bottom theories (which enabled the inflow of foreign investment). This uncertainty instead seems to encourage multinational corporations, not only from China but now also from European countries, though China still predominates. How do these Chinese companies: i) acquire investment licenses; ii) secure their business operations over a long-term period; and iii) cope with risks in the uncertain regulatory enforcement environment? Based on my observation and case studies, these questions can be addressed through a careful study of Cambodia’s socio-political culture in relation to an entrenched patronage and client network.

Both clientelism and patronage imply the politically motivated distribution of favours that aims to promote personal and political interests. The two terms are often combined when speaking of patron-client relationship, which can be understood as a dyadic tie involving a largely instrumental friendship[12]. In this friendship, an individual of higher socio-economic status (the patron) uses their own influence and resources to provide protection or benefits, or both, for a person of lower status (the client) who, for their part, reciprocates by offering general support and assistance to the patron. Developing a clientelist network is a means by which to gain protection and achieve goals in a situation of societal uncertainty created by public institutions which may behave in ways that are not predictable.

Patron-client network has been generally accepted by Cambodia’s political culture, having the ruler as the central patron of the neo-patrimonial regime. Characterising Hun Sen as a man of prowess, scholars assert that he has remained in power because he is culturally perceived as a man possessing merit or bunn, which can be translated to power[13]. In essence, all decision-making must be referred to the patrons of the regime (having Hun Sen as chair or central patron).

To maintain their patronage system, the patron of the regime has, since the early 1990s, not only awarded lucrative positions to clients, but also allocated natural resources[14]. For instance, the awarding of licences for resource extraction (mining, oil, agricultural land, commercial forest logging and energy) and the privatising of state properties has been given to those individuals who support and are loyal to the ruling party (see Figure 3).

Figure 3: A model of Chinese investors operating in Cambodia

Generally, government officials seek lucrative positions and use their positions to extract rent. These appointments are not made freely, but based on rents. As the rent increases, so does the price of the position. In so doing, the allocation of lucrative positions is subject to (invisible) auctions and competition within the network, and relies on connections with the patrons and the ruling party. “They have to pay a certain amount of money to secure their position.”[15] If someone, in addition to his or her popularity, dares to pay more or contribute more to the party’s patrons, they will be offered the position. To ensure access to ministries with authority over resources and power, including lucrative sectors, a strong network is highly necessary[16].

The foregoing political culture of doing internal business in Cambodia has become a contact point of the foreign investors. Foreign investors (the clients) need powerful politico-commercial officials (the middle patrons) to support long-term business operations in Cambodia, where lax regulation enforcement and an uncertain business environment persistently prevail (Young, 2016), see figure 3. The network of middle patrons and client (foreign investors) is installed through one of two pathways: being a local joint venture partner, or being a broker who later becomes a local partner. Without these pathways, it is extremely difficult for foreign investors to get access to natural resources[17]; no business can enjoy the medium term in Cambodia without connecting to the patron’s affiliates. Through joint ventures with local reliable and powerful businesspersons, foreign investors can be granted ELCs and secure long-term successful investments. If there is no such relationship, foreign investors will not be able to access the resources. If there is no powerful local partner, foreign investors are likely to face high risk and fail in securing an ELC or long-term investments.[18] For example, a Chinese state-owned company, Fuchan and China Cooperative State Farm Group, partnered with Cambodian Pheapimex to develop agricultural plantations in the north-eastern province of Mondulkiri, and in Kampong Chhnang and Pursat provinces; such an arrangement caused adverse impacts on the socio-economic conditions of the local communities, including displacement, loss of access to natural resources and land, food insecurity and impoverishment[19]. These investments have nevertheless been secured in Cambodia through a joint venture between Chinese investors and Cambodian magnates, dominated by Sino-Khmers[20]. In this instance, this patron-client network has been installed not only within the government administration, but also between these politico-commercial elites and foreign investors or investment projects in Cambodia. Another pathway is through a broker (or licence trader) who later becomes a local joint venture partner. Foreign investors have to find a local broker who is powerful and has strong connections with senior government officials in order to facilitate the process of requesting ELCs. The foreign investors have to pay a substantial amount that is not indicated in the regulations. On receiving ELC licences, foreign investors have to allocate some number of shares to the broker free of charge[21] and then the broker becomes a local partner to protect the business operation. Otherwise, other corrupt or influential senior government officials might intrude into the business during its operations.[22] In so doing, the domestic partners become middle patrons of the foreign investors (the clients). The patrons have an obligation to protect the client in return for rent; for example, confronting allegations from affected communities, activists and NGOs.

In a case of Sino-Khmer who facilitated Chinese investment in Cambodia, a senior government official unveils that “… They, the foreign investors, do not know the entry point for investment in Cambodia, where to go and how to process the legal documents.”[23] Such a process is confirmed by a legal advisor who facilitates access to granting ELC licences. She argues that if investors had no connection and wanted to follow the procedure stated in the concession regulatory framework, the concerned ministries of the government would not be available to talk and work with them. Investors have to seek local investors or facilitators/brokers who are powerful and have strong connection with powerful officials to get an ELC approved within a short-period, although they have to pay transition fees[24]. She pointed out that: “Newcomers [investors] … find someone who has good networks and relationships, and the process of granting licence goes smoothly…”[25]

In this case, by connecting with a local Sino-tycoon, it took a Chinese foreign investor only three months to obtain from the council of ministers (CoM),[26] much faster than for most companies. Acting on this advantage, the joint company did not conduct proper public consultation or social and environmental impact assessments (EIA|), as required by the sub-decrees of economic concession (2005), Land Law (2001) and EIA (1999), before approval by the CoM. This concession is thus accused of violating these regulations. As stated in the Land Law, no concession is granted to a private company of greater than 10,000 hectares. This agro-sugar industrial investment was, however, awarded up to 19,100 hectares, as it claimed to be two companies but was, in fact, operating as a single company.[27] This case has suggested how a local Sino-Khmer could influence regulatory process in doing and securing business in Cambodia in the amid of rampant protests of the civil society organisations and the affected communities.


With long historical migration, business and diplomatic relations between the two countries, the influx of new generations of Chinese foreign investments and aid to Cambodia is the by-product of geopolitical expansion, but complementing both the host and foreign country’s political economic interests. The continuance of Chinese investment to Cambodia’s least favorable business environment has been secured and maintained as new Chinese investors have exploited socio-political cultural practices instilled by older generations of Sino-Khmer (tracing back to the 12th century, and very clearly from the end of the French protectorate era in Cambodia). Cambodia’s long established clientelism and patronage culture are seen as a mesh network, within which the stronger influence the weaker, and both share reciprocal but not always equal benefits. This culture has influenced regulatory enforcement and become an invisible form of business regulatory practice in Cambodia, where their ruler, also known as the patron at the apex of the pyramid, has been in power for decades. The patron, the middle-patron and the client (including the new generation of Chinese investors) become what is called “paralegal” mediating and easing doing business in the host country’s ambiguous regulatory enforcement environment. The ability to embrace and adopt the entrenched patron-client networks in the host country is a powerful weapon to ensure and secure long-term business operations (generally enabled by high-level bilateral diplomatic and political economic relations).  

[1] Chanda Nayan, China and Cambodia: In the mirror of history, 9(2), Asia Pacific Review, 1, 11 (2002).

[2] Groslier, 1958 cited in Chin J.K. (2017) Ethnicized Networks and Local Embeddedness: The New Chinese Migrant Community in Cambodia. In: Zhou M. (eds) Contemporary Chinese Diasporas. Palgrave, Singapore

[3] Nyíri Pál. Investors, managers, brokers, and culture workers: How the” New” Chinese are changing the meaning of Chineseness in Cambodia1(2), Cross-Currents: East Asian History and Culture Review, 369-397 (2012)

[4] Chanda (2002)

[5] CDC (Council for the Development of Cambodia). 2018. Development Cooperation and Partnerships Report. Phnom Penh: CDC, available at http://www.cdc-crdb.gov.kh/cdc/dcpr_images/docs/english.pdf (accessed 24 August 2019)

[6] ASEA Statistic: https://data.aseanstats.org/fdi-by-hosts-and-sources (accessed 02 September 2019)

[7] World Bank (2019). Doing Business 2019: Training for reform, economy profile Cambodia. https://www.doingbusiness.org/content/dam/doingBusiness/country/c/cambodia/KHM.pdf (accessed September 03, 2019).

[8] Subedi Surya P Land rights in countries in transition: A case study of human rights impact of economic land concessions in Cambodia. In Asian Yearbook of International Law, 1, 46 (2018). Brill Nijhoff.

[9] Young Sokphea, Movement of indigenous communities targeting an agro-industrial investment in North-Eastern Cambodia 44 (1.2), Asian Journal of Social Science 187, 213 (2016).

[10] Subedi (2018)

[11] Young Sokphea, Protests, Regulations, and Environmental Accountability in Cambodia 38(1), Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs 33, 54 (2019)

[12] Scott, James, The erosion of patron-client bonds and social change in rural Southeast Asia 32(01). The Journal of Asian Studies, 5, 37 (1972).

[13] Jacobsen Trude & Stuart-Fox Martin, Power and political culture in Cambodia Working Paper 200. Singapore: Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore (2013).

[14] Hughes Caroline. Political economy of the Cambodian transition (2003). London: Routledge.

[15] An interview with a member of parliament and standing committee of the party (18 Dec 2013)

[16] Hughes Caroline & Conway Tim, Understanding pro-poor political change: The policy process–Cambodia (2004). London: Overseas Development Institute.

[17] Senior legal advisor (09 Dec 2013); a company Chief Executive Officer (CEO) (18 Dec 2013) & ELC general manager (27 Nov 2013)

[18] ELC general manager (27 Nov 2013) & Senior legal advisor (09 Dec 2013).

[19] Un Kheang, China’s foreign investment and assistance: Implications for Cambodia’ development and democratization16(2) Peace & Conflict Studies, 65, 81 (2009).

[20] Un Kheang (2009)

[21] A deputy provincial governor (15 Dec 2013) confessed that foreign investors allocate certain shares to their Cambodian brokers and they later become local partners.

[22] A CEO (18 Dec 2013) & ELC general manager (27 Nov 2013).

[23] A deputy provincial governor (15 Dec 2013).

[24] NGO deputy director (20 Dec 2013) & senior legal advisor (09 Dec 2013)

[25] Senior legal advisor (09 Dec 2013).

[26] The licence is approved by the council of minister in the form of a notification (sor chor nor in Khmer), which is usually exaggerated by companies and local and provincial authorities as a ‘law’ or chbab.

[27] NGO lawyer (20 Dec 2013).

Citation: Young, S. (2020). How Chinese Investors build patron and client networks to secure their investment in Cambodia. Insights on Southeast Asia. Retrieved from https://sea-insights.com/2020/11/18/how-chinese-investors-build-patron-and-client-networks-to-secure-their-investment-in-cambodia/(opens in a new tab)