CAMBODIA: Key role for universities in healing society

Universities need to move beyond their traditional roles of teaching, learning and research towards another core function - linking campuses to communities. They can play a key role in organising programmes in which students have the opportunity to be engaged in civic activities. This is particularly important in countries like Cambodia, which have been damaged by severe societal breakdowns in the past.

The erosion of trust in Cambodia - both interpersonal and institutional - caused by the Khmer Rouge regime, has weakened people's ability to work together for a common goal. It has crippled Cambodia's ability to recover from the devastation caused by prolonged civil conflicts. The Khmer Rouge regime left a psychological legacy - in this case, trauma - which has yet to be treated or healed.

As someone born after the collapse of the Khmer Rouge regime in 1979, I believe that many young Cambodians have been affected by their parents' bad experiences. This trauma has become inter-generational.

Although young Cambodians' experiences are not as bad as those of their parents, parents' traumatic experiences of the genocidal regime and the chronic civil wars have been passed on to their children through the ways they were brought up.

The bad experiences affected the ways people viewed the world around them and how they related to other people. The erosion of trust continues into present Cambodian society.

It is noticeable that the ability to work together among (young) Cambodians tends to be limited to within families and small intimate groups of close friends. People don't seem to have enough confidence to extend cooperation beyond close networks, which really affects their ability to work together as well as the productivity of their work.

Promoting civic engagement at universities allows students to interact with one another beyond their small groups, to communicate with one another, to work together to achieve a common purpose, and to learn about one another, which leads to a better understanding of each other.

This process is critical for confidence and trust building, which is the first step to encouraging people to work together productively.

However, because of limited budget and lack of understanding of the importance of civic engagement, most Cambodian universities focus only on their traditional roles of teaching, learning and research.

Although some students mention having been involved in community service or volunteerism, the primary reason they stated was egoistic rather than altruistic, self-centered rather than compassionate. For instance, the most cited reason for doing community service or volunteerism was to gain some experience so that it was easier to secure a job in future.

I believe being civically engaged means learning to give back to the community, to help one another, to share, to take responsibilities, to understand the working and systems of the government and the processes of choosing a leader, and learning to be a good leader, to be accountable and to understand the principles and practices of democracy, to mention a few.

In this sense, civic engagement at university makes young people build or connect the missing link between the academic world and the real world. Civic engagement makes the students understand the importance of being civically engaged because of the benefits they will gain by doing so.

It also helps them to learn to trust fellow Cambodians through working together and helping those in need of support. At the same time, they learn to be good citizens and good leaders.

What's also important is that civic education programmes help students to understand the importance of their role in a democratic country. This is vital not only in the present but also in the future. I believe that a healthy democratic country has a huge population with high levels of civic mindedness and engagement.

For this reason, in this critical stage of democratising Cambodia, it is important to promote civic engagement among young Cambodians. This will provide a good opportunity for them not only to be well prepared for future careers but also to contribute to a healthy democracy in this newly democratised country.

* Vicheth Sen, a lecturer at the Royal Phnom Penh University, is the author of Higher Education and Civic Engagement In Cambodia: A Case Study at the Royal University of Phnom Penh.

I entirely agree with the point made in the article "Key Role of universities in Healing Society". The management of a university in a developed or developing country should know what is desperately needed in their society and design the curriculum accordingly.

In Cambodia, where the people have gone through many years of civil war, genocide, and destruction resulting in lack of knowledge manpower, decrease in social morality, and economical and educational setback, Pannasastra University of Cambodia (PUC) has attached importance of community service learning to its curriculum since its inception. As you may see in its vision and philosophy, PUC envisions a world at peace, where conflicts are resolved by non-violent means beginning with individuals and extending to the community. Additionally, PUC places special emphasis on research and studies in peace, development and social responsibility.

Along with certain subjects such as gender studies, environment, personal growth etc., students have to take community service learning programmes in which they have to go to their community to learn about the real problems, help the disadvantaged and vulnerable children and people, and build teamwork spirit with not only classmates but the community. PUC's Community Service Learning Office, which works with about 16 partner NGOs, has so thus organised the sixth charity event to raise fund to help its partners and sustain its programs. Because PUC's CSL programs have been actively run, an international conference on community services has recently been hosted by PUC, and many local and neighboring countries' universities have come to learn PUC's experiences.

I believe that including civic activities in the university curriculum can promote spirit of mutual understanding, assistance and considerateness, working and solving problems together.

Bonarin Hem,
Pannasastra University of Cambodia

In summary, university students are requested to show their degree of altruism, not only concerning their ego-centrism. I do agree with this point of view. It is very important for developing economies.

Tiyo Widodo


A major break-through article which any educational institution anywhere in the world should find eye-opening, especially in more developing countries if they are to build a real democratic world where their citizens will take future generations of people in their hands.

UY Vuthy