Atrocities at Cambodian university

September 21, 2006, volume 37, no. 2
By Roberta Staley

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(Phnom Penh)—room 214a at the Royal University of Phnom Penh (RUPP) in Cambodia is as banal and utilitarian as any graduate student's office: tiled floor, desks, shelves full of text books, a humming air conditioner keeping the oppressive summer heat at bay.

"The Khmer Rouge kept prisoners here and executed them," says Rith Sam Ol, strolling out of 214A following an interview with SFU News. "Dead bodies were found in these rooms," says Rith, a young mother and lecturer in conservation and resource management in RUPP's department of tourism. (In Cambodia, the surname comes first, given names last.)

The university, expansive and airy, with cream painted walls and cool grey marble flooring, was built in 1960, only 15 years before the ultra-Marxist Khmer Rouge regime took power and turned Cambodia into a country of agricultural communes led by youthful cadres bursting with revolutionary zeal and ideology. Private property, Western medicine and religious practice were abolished. It became a crime to have a university education, to own a business or gold. Eighty per cent of the faculty and half the student body either fled or died as a result of extreme privations or by execution.

RUPP was re-opened—and the atrocities that were committed within its walls revealed—shortly after the 1979 Vietnam invasion drove the Khmer Rouge out of Phnom Penh.

Rith and Yim Sorphorn, a senior lecturer at RUPP's Institute of Foreign Languages who is also a deputy director at the university's continuing education center, began PhD studies in September at SFU. Rith is studying natural resource management and community economic development and Yim, educational leadership.

Their studies—both are on full scholarship—are being funded through the $3 million Tier I Project, Adult Education for Economic Development awarded to SFU in 2004 by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). The project—to build institutional capacity and establish continuing education programs—is a cooperative venture between SFU's continuing education department, RUPP and Chulalongkorn University in Thailand and the National University of Laos. It will continue to 2010.

The project goal in Cambodia is to promote community economic development through increased access to continuing adult education and training for adults and out-of-school youth. This will help them become more active as Cambodia attempts to move beyond its status as a pre-industrial nation.

Over the next few years, Rith and Yim will be joined by four other PhD students and about two dozen master's students from the three countries. The PhD students will spend up to five semesters at SFU,
the master of education students, several weeks.

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