PHNOM PENH — Late last month, the prime minister of Cambodia awarded his long-serving finance minister the title “Kitti Setah Banditt,” which roughly translates to “Glorious Economist of Genius” and is the supposed equivalent of a doctoral degree. It was a variation on an obscure “Glorious Genius” honor that seemingly came out of nowhere in 2011, when it was given to two senior leaders of the governing Cambodian People’s Party as well as the prime minister’s wife.
A similar title — Glorious Preacher of Genius — was recently conferred on several high-ranking members of the Buddhist monastic order, which is closely aligned with C.P.P.
When the powers that be aren’t burnishing their credentials, they invent them out of whole cloth.
Khmer-language newspapers frequently carry advertisements congratulating officials on their latest academic degrees. Mong Reththy, a C.P.P. senator and businessman, has amassed at least three doctorates. Cheam Yeap, the head of Parliament’s finance committee, has two doctorates, as well as what he calls a “post Ph.D.” from Isles International University, an unaccredited institution and a diploma mill that once operated in Cambodia. In official communications, his name is prefaced by the title “His Excellency Post Doctor.”
In 2010 Nhiek Bun Chhay, leader of the C.P.P.-aligned Funcinpec Party, claimed to have earned, after studying online for seven years, a Ph.D. in dispute resolution from St. Clements University in Switzerland, apparently another degree mill. Chea Sim, the Senate president and C.P.P. leader, has at least three Ph.D.’s — including one in “high leadership in the Senate” — as well as two honorary doctorates, despite never having progressed beyond high school.
Prime Minister Hun Sen, for his part, says he received a doctorate in political science from the National Political Academy in Hanoi in 1991 and at least 10 honorary Ph.D.’s, many from obscure universities. On his Web site, he also boasts of being a member of the bar, a five-star general, a Royal Academician and an Honorable Professor of Diplomatic and International Relations with the Universidad Empresarial de Costa Rica.
One likely reason Cambodia’s leaders fetishize doctorates is insecurity: Many received little schooling because of interruptions to their studies caused by civil war and then the Khmer Rouge regime during the 1960s and 1970s. And while they do, Cambodia’s educational system remains abysmal. According to a 2011 World Bank report, Cambodia spends just 2.3 percent of G.D.P. on education — less than other low-income countries — and the share of the budget allocated for teachers’ wages has declined over the past few years, even as the budget for military wages has increased significantly.
Primary-school teachers are so badly paid they often collect bribes from students before class. Only around one-fifth of students progress to high school. At even the best universities in the country, the quality of education is poor by international standards and graduates learn few of the skills sought by the labor market. A few Cambodian universities offer doctoral programs, but with only about 7 percent of university-level teachers holding Ph.D.’s, any student with serious scholarly aspirations must go abroad.
Instead of accumulating phony doctorates, Cambodia’s leaders would do better to improve the quality of the country’s schools and universities so that one day they might produce their own — legitimate — Ph.D.’s.
Julia Wallace is managing editor of The Cambodia Daily.