Fiery pay protest burns itself out

February 26, 1999

The walkout by Cambodian lecturers and high-school teachers last month was a firebrand protest. Hundreds of them assembled at the education ministry in Phnom Penh with paraffin and a pile of used tyres. Then torched it.

Black smoke also billowed out from in front of the city's university campus, where students, tired of moonlighting lecturers not turning up for classes, joined in calls for a massive hike in teachers' salaries, from the average 60,000 riel (Pounds 10) a month.

Thousands of staff from universities, colleges and high schools in the capital and the second city Battambang joined the pay protest, demanding Pounds 190 a month to bring them into line with most private sector jobs.

The response of prime minister Hun Sen was original. In a show of solidarity, his cabinet proposed all ministers and MPs take a 70 per cent cut in their Pounds 650 a month salaries. It is doubtful if it will get through parliament.

All teachers, who have similar salaries from primary to university level, were offered a Pounds 3.50 rise. After two weeks, the strike began to flag. "At one point it looked like it would develop into something, but the protest has fizzled out. There is no organised teachers' union here, so it's difficult for them to exert pressure on the government," a foreign diplomat in Phnom Penh said.

Education minister Tol Lah said last week that most teachers had returned to work. He said he sympathised with the teachers' plight. "The problem is we just don't have the money. We have raised the salary by 20,000 riel and are looking at the budget."

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