Can’t wait for the new film: Don’t Think That I’ve Forgotten.

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That cool guitar group above is Baksei Chan Krung who are thought to be Cambodia’s first rock ‘n’ roll guitar band. In January this year film maker finally called ‘it’s a wrap’ on his documentary 10 years in the making called Don’t Think That I’ve Forgotten.

Long fascinated by the golden age of Cambodian pop music in the 60s, Pirozzi tracked down surviving footage, recording and survivors from the Pol Pot era that all but obliterated the energetic pop legacy. It was an exciting time with many young Cambodians adopting – and adapting – the guitar-driven sounds of the era.

Pirozzi  held a preview screening in Phnom Penh while the official launch of the movie takes place later in 2014.  For a news account of the preview Click here. I’ll keep readers posted but to get a feel for the movie visit the trailer on YouTube.

Meanwhile the Phnom Penh Post article covering the preview pulled together an excellent article on the pop era. This is well worth a read.

 

 

 

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Education under the Khmer Rouge. Pol Pot’s new order in the classroom.

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Pol Pot traded in his comfortable French education for a radical repudiation of all critical thinking. He wasn’t against literacy – but he demanded a certain type.

I think in a year of blogs about Savong’s School in Cambodia I’ve referred to the Pol Pot years only sparingly. I refer only cautiously to those years because we are at risk of focusing on the Khmer Rouge as if this was the single shaper of today’s Cambodia. Just as surely today’s culture has been influenced by more than 1000 years of history, and by the French Colonial rule, and by the years immediately after Pol Pot when Cambodia lay adrift, deliberately rejected by the western world, during years of crippling poverty.

But today I thought I’d reflect on education during the Pol Pot years in order to fill a gap in my own understanding. One of the most destructive aspects of the Khmer Rouge, in their effort to disassemble Cambodia, was to attack three pillars of their society: religion, family and education. Sources reveal how they implemented many illogical laws to terrorise the population. You could be arrested for averting your eyes to the left rather than right. If you wore glasses, a sure sign of being a member of the bourgeois intelligentsia, you could also expect to be arrested and executed. Teachers were routinely rounded up, often in front of their students who later reported hearing rifle shots in nearby fields. Their beloved teachers never returned.

For teaching life before 1975 Mitty Steele’s excellent and deeply personal essay is an excellent place to start as she retraces her own father’s history.

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In the Shadow of Angkor: Contemporary Writing from Cambodia Paperback by Frank Stewart (Editor), Sharon May. A compelling account of the survival of literature in Cambodia during and after the Pol Pot years.

In the book above, In the Shadow of Angkor: Contemporary Writing from Cambodia the contributing writers provide not only tastes of modern essays and poetry, but also the recollections from those who recount the elimination of the educated “elite” during the time of Pol Pot. Many writers survived by feigning illiteracy. Even so, by some estimates fewer than 60 academics are said to have avoided execution or death through starvation. Sixty.

What is important to understand is that the Khmer Rouge did not wish to destroy literacy: but they wanted their kind of literacy. By that, say authors George Chigas and Dmitri Mosyakov in their study: Literacy and Education under the Khmer Rouge (written as part of the The Cambodian Genocide Program, Yale University,) the Khmer Rouge wanted an education system that was strong on unquestioning literacy: the blind acceptance of propaganda without critical doubt. For this reason there were people classed as “correctly literate” (for example peasants who could scarcely read – and who accepted what they read,) and those that were “incorrectly literate.”) This latter class were seen as a threat to the revolution and the emergence of the new Kampuchea. So they started eliminating those with a traditional French-style education (most schools in Cambodia still reflect the educational template of the French,) and those who spoke foreign languages such as French. (Today some of the older generation are still fluent in French – though they would have hidden this in the late 1970s.)

A quoted goal from the Grand Plan, put together in 1976 by Pol Pot and eight other leaders stated:

Continue the struggle to abolish, uproot, and disperse the cultural, literary, and artistic remnants of the imperialists, colonialists, and all of the other oppressor classes. This will be implemented strongly, deeply and continuously one after the other from 1977 onwards.

The educational policy of the Khmer Rouge was also very strong on “technical skills” namely the skills required to grow rice, to fish, to farm, as well as to share simple medical knowledge. The goals were not about personal advancement but, rather, the advancement of the collective. The new school system was designed to “teach” not only through classroom activities but through physical labour.  As the plan said:

Daily Education Methods.  Half study, half work for material production

The Yale authors research shows how Individualism was seen as a threat to the Party’s ideology. In the same section of the document that calls for dividing the day between study and work, they found this statement:

“In our educational system there are no examinations and no certificates; it is a system of learning through the collective and in the concrete movement of the socialist revolution and the building of socialism in the specific contexts, especially the co-operatives, factories, and military units.”

The general school syllabus – at least that proposed for 1977 – included:

  • reading and writing
  • arithmetic
  • geography (importantly that of the nation)
  • history of the revolutionary struggle of the people, the revolutionary struggle for the nation, the revolutionary struggle for democracy, the revolutionary struggle for socialist revolution, and the struggle to build socialism.
  • natural sciences, physics, chemistry (as base)
  • the Party’s politics, consciousness, and organisation

That was the stated goal anyhow. In reality the school system was collapsing and the much vaunted revolution ended up an economic disaster. Grand plans, modeled on Chinese efforts under Mao and dubbed The Super Leap Forward failed miserably. The lofty objectives for rice production per hectare and for a bounteous agricultural  production to be shared by all were never even approached. Very soon the nation was cast into famine conditions and the dream to build a new school system never advanced past the opening of a handful of model schools, if that.

What I find amazing is how, through all this, the DNA of the educational system even survived. The collective memory of the education system, as it existed prior to Pol Pot remained loosely intact due I think to three things. One was the capacity of educated people to feign illiteracy and to simply survive by staying quiet and compliant. Next was the escape of Cambodians, mostly to Thailand before locating – mostly to France and the USA – in the aftermath of Pol Pot. Within the Paris and Long Beach communities existed survivors who later helped resurrect the fragments of the education system.  And finally the re-emergence of an education system came from the people themselves – people who had been through school as children. People who knew the value of what they’d lost.

I don’t think of the Pol Pot years without ultimately thinking of the courage of those who faced the terror. Today’s education system in Cambodia is developing again. We now have a cohort of teachers who have had teacher training. There are Khmer text books and universities. I think of today’s system as not only preserving the DNA from earlier times, but also being a system fueled by a deeper thirst for education, and a system laced with resilience and courage.

For more history of Cambodia.

For more facts and figures about present day Education in Cambodia

Free state education? Correction or corruption?

Free state education? Correction or corruption?

The widespread practice of teachers demanding fees to top-up their State School salaries has been under attack recently, as this Cambodia Daily article demonstrates. But low teacher salaries are part of the problem.  Good article

More about Savong’s School – Siem Reap, Cambodia.

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Ramy and Me.

Ramy and Me.

Ramy is one of the students at the Savong Student Center in Siem Reap. Sponsored by the USA-based Savong Foundation the center provides accommodation for older students who come from the countryside – some of whom used to live at the SOC in Bakong. The student center provides a transition zone for these young guys – a flatting situation where they look after themselves, but also the support they need to study – either through completion of High School, or university.

Cambodia’s Literacy Rate

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School prize giving – Cambodia. A new generation and a higher degree of adult literacy.

The measurement of literacy rates is extremely problematic in poorer nations so it doesn’t surprise me that the UNESCO figures have wandered around – in fact they went down somewhat from 2008 to 2009 – a blip I’d put down to methodology rather than some demographic or education system ‘event.’

The figures show a largely upward trend over the previous decade and given the fast population growth the literacy rate, if you measure it in sheer numbers represents a gain of close to 700,000 adults 15+ between 1998 and 2008. This still leaves at least half a million adults deemed illiterate.

In world terms this is still not a great figure. UNESCO ranks Cambodia and 108th in the world, rubbing shoulders with Uganda, the Solomon Islands, Guatemala and Iraq.

The Cambodian government, which defines literacy as:

A person is literate who can, with understanding in both reading and writing, make a short simple statement on his/her everyday life.

has set goals for improving the literacy rates and certainly the school system is where it starts. In Cambodia, according to 2008 Census figures 88% of adults 15-24 are literate, (89% of males, 86% of females) whereas the figure drops with each age group and the gap between females and males gets wider: (48% literacy amongst 65+ with  74% of males and 31% of females.)

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Savong’s School takes another step.

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Agony or Ecstasy? Students at Savong’s School clamour to see how they fared in the latest exams.

Hey I’m back. It’s been a month between blogs in part due to a need to recharge my batteries and also to give you gracious followers a break!

This last week I had a terrific Skype call withe Savong regarding the school. This year marks our tenth year of working together and I’ve often reflected on how the vision of Savong – to provide free education that gives a vocational boost to poor rural students – has remained intact while the expression of this vision has had to move with the times. Ten years ago providing language skills that would get a student work in a guest house was truly aspirational. Today that vocation is pretty basic and students are wanting to reach higher. Some want to be doctors, lawyers and business owners. Their dreams are bigger.

What Savong talked about is a reconfiguration of his school which two weeks ago received fresh licensing from the Ministry of Education, Youth & Sport (MOEYS) and is seen by Government as part of the network of local official schools rather than as an NGO “rival” to the State system. That distinction is important because up until now Savong School has been operating in a complementary fashion to the local high school in Bakong. When it operated in the morning, Savong’s school opened in the afternoons: the aim being to give local students a booster shot of additional education.

This year Bakong High School extended its hours, which we’re certainly not complaining about, but it has squeezed Savong School opening hours later and later. Right now it opens not at 2:00pm but at 4:00pm and finishes in the black of night which in Cambodia arrives at 7:00pm. This is late for the students, and less safe for those who walk to their homes.

Rather than be sandwiched like this, Savong sees a better solution which is to extend the hours of the school and to teach a wider syllabus including Khmer lessons (mathematics, history) as well as the languages and computer skills already taught.  Students would be allowed to choose this school rather than Bakong High School and of course Savong would stick to the core vision of providing free education. State Schools are supposed to be free, but the practice of charging a monthly fee to help boost teacher salaries is widespread and hurts poorer families.

Examinations held at Savong School will – as they are already – be recognised by the State system.

The change of syllabus offering needs planning. Teachers, support textbooks need to be prepared, and any change needs to be carefully communicated to the community. Savong is picturing any changes to take place in October when the new school year begins.

I’m very excited by Savong’s plans and look forward to the additional service and support his school can offer local students.

Here’s the latest on the new school plans. Can you assist?