Mandarin to become mandatory language in Cambodian high schools

An agreement with China to include mandatory Mandarin language classes in Cambodia’s public secondary schools has Cambodian educators worried about growing Chinese influence that will undermine the kingdom’s culture and sovereignty.

On Wednesday, the two governments signed a memorandum of understanding in Phnom Penh to introduce the new subject to students from 7th to 12th grade, one of 18 agreements signed during a ceremony between Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and visiting Chinese Premier Li Keqiang.

In response to the move, teachers and political observers say the Cambodian government should strengthen its national culture instead, so citizens will not imitate foreign cultures, especially that of China. 

The new requirement would serve only to increase Beijing’s influence in Cambodia, said Rong Chhun, an adviser to the Cambodian Independent Teachers’ Association and a member of the Cambodia Watchdog Council.

“It is about political influence,” he said. China “wants to mainstream its culture as well as political influence to dominate Cambodia because there is competition in the region, and we know that Cambodia is now in geopolitical competition with the great powers in the world.” 

As an alternative, Rong Chhun suggested that the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport set up separate language schools so that students can choose whether they want to study Chinese.

Currently, Cambodia offers English and French language instruction in its education curriculum throughout the country from grade four to 12. Korean classes are offered from grade seven to nine in six high schools.

Em Sovannara, an academic expert in political science and international relations, said the inclusion of Mandarin in the state education curriculum is similar to the Soviet era, when Cambodian school children had to learn Russian and Vietnamese.

“If the Cambodian people do not maintain their strong cultural identity, they will be vulnerable to the imitation of East Asian and Chinese cultures,” he said. “And so, it can [lead] to the loss of our cultural balance if the Cambodian people have little understanding of our culture.”

RFA could not reach Ministry of Education spokesman Ros Sovacha or Cambodia government spokesman Phay Siphan for comment on Thursday.

However, Ros Sovacha told a domestic pro-government news outlet that the memorandum of understanding would boost Cambodian-Chinese ties. He also said the ministry would conduct a pilot phase, offering Chinese language classes in 20 high schools in two or three provinces, while also expanding Korean language instruction to six high schools in Phnom Penh. 

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