Academic freedom in Cambodia is limited, but to what extent?

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
A Cambodian worker stands by placards with cartoon carracters illustrating corruption in business. As a few quotes in the article show, academic freedom in Cambodia is still ‘in its infancy’ and ‘still a new idea’ as many research topics related to human rights, politics and corruption, among other “highly sensitive topics”, have reportedly been forbidden within Cambodian universities. AFP

Recently, I published an article, entitled The State of Academic Freedom in Cambodia. The article was written as a commentary, but the argument was based on my own experiences as a Cambodian academic, my interactions with other Cambodian lecturers for almost 10 years, the data from my own doctoral research, and opinions of Sorpong Peou, professor of Global Peace and Security at Ryerson University in Canada.

Overall, the article argues that “although there is apparently a lack of evidence-based agreement with regard to the state of academic freedom in Cambodia, it is reasonable to say that there is some space of academic freedom that allows researchers, academics, and students to maneuver in their research and publication activities”.

The article acknowledges that there have been “tough restrictions on certain sensitive topics that were discouraged or even banned by some universities in Cambodia”. However, it makes an argument that “academic freedom in Cambodia is not too restricted to the extent that no one can do research or participate in academic debate at all. In fact, there is space in which researchers, lecturers and students can express their academic views, both in spoken and written forms, offline or online, provided that such expressions are not politically motivated and/or designed in ways that aim to harm the rights of other people”.

This argument obviously suggests that there is academic freedom in Cambodia, yet such freedom is limited. As a few quotes in the article show, academic freedom in Cambodia is still “in its infancy” and “still a new idea” as many research topics related to human rights, politics and corruption, among other “highly sensitive topics”, have reportedly been forbidden within Cambodian universities. Nonetheless, a quotation from one of my research participants who was a member of the management team of a private Cambodian university seems reasonable. He said: “We have to accept the truth that we have freedom to conduct research [in Cambodia]. As academic researchers, we are not like politicians. We can conduct research by following scientific rigour.”

Despite this, some of my friends who are active Cambodian researchers are not convinced by the argument of the article. One of them raised several critical questions in response to my article. In the article, it was suggested that “Cambodian academics or researchers as well as students [should] avoid attacking others personally, especially political leaders, when expressing their views in speech or writing”. To this statement, my friend who has conducted a number of research studies asked in a Facebook group: “[What] is personal? An academic [is] attacking [an] academic? or [an] academic [is] attacking a political leader? or his policy? Who defines personal if she/he is a public figure whose actions and policies would have huge impacts on society at large? Who defines ‘politically sensitive topics? Where is the line drawn?”

He went on to suggest that “there is [a] certain level of academic freedom in Cambodia. But that comes at a personal cost – one can always try to push the line but only at a personal cost. He again asked: “Is that a limited [academic] freedom? A certain level of tolerance?” He argued “to me as long as academics feel unsecure to write a ‘politically sensitive topic’, there is no freedom”. Another friend of mine who has been active in research and has published several research works wrote “0” which means “No” when asked whether there was academic freedom in Cambodia.

These interactions and counteractions prompt us to look at academic freedom in terms of a continuum of academic freedom. Thus, on a continuum between “no academic freedom” at one end and “full academic freedom” at the other, where does academic freedom in Cambodia sit? It is certain that academic freedom in Cambodia is limited, but to what extent is it limited? Does academic freedom in Cambodia stand on the negative end (0% to 50%) or a positive end (51% to 100%) of the continuum? In other words, is there less than 50% or more than 50% of academic freedom in Cambodia? Or is there no academic freedom at all? Answers to all these questions will vary depending on who is asked.

In brief, the lack of evidence-based agreement or updated empirical studies investigating this issue warrants further investigation. Future research may delve into this issue of academic freedom in Cambodia through large-scale surveys or in-depth interviews with Cambodian researchers, academics, and research students in order to provide an improved understanding of the nature of academic freedom in Cambodia.

The issue of academic freedom needs to receive serious attention because it is a critical factor that influences how researchers, academics, students, and relevant individuals in Cambodia engage in research and publication. Without a high level of academic freedom, it is no doubt that researchers as well as those who are involved in research will practice self-censorship. This will in return significantly affect the quality of research and publication as well as the desire, aspiration, and ambition to conduct and publish research.

Kimkong Heng is a PhD Candidate in Education at the University of Queensland, Australia. He is a recipient of the Australia Awards Scholarship and a Visiting Senior Fellow at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace. The views expressed are entirely his own.