The State of Academic Freedom in Cambodia

This article was published by Asian Vision Institute on 20 July 2020.

Kimkong Heng

Academic freedom, according to Cary Nelson, Professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is the freedom to “engage in intellectual debate without fear of censorship or retaliation”. It allows researchers, academics, teachers and students to express their views in speech or writing without fear of punishment or sanction as long as the way in which their views are expressed does not damage the rights of others.

Academic freedom, Nelson argues, “Gives both students and faculty the right to study and do research on the topics they choose and to draw what conclusions they find consistent with their research.” Whether or not others agree with their research findings is another matter.

Under the auspices of academic freedom, students, teachers, academics and researchers can criticise regulations they perceive not fair and disagree with policies or the effectiveness of their implementation without fear of reprisals. In other words, with academic freedom, those students and intellectual workers can remain true to their intellectual integrity and endeavours without compromise.

They can challenge each other’s views and ideas, but academic freedom does not give them the right to hurl insults, harassment, intimidation, ridicule or attacks on others.

In Cambodia, academic freedom is generally believed to be limited. According to Rany Sam and co-researchers, academic freedom in the country is still “in its infancy because the freedom of expression related to politics, human rights, democracy, corruption, transparency, good governance, and social justice debates are banned within [higher education institutions]”.

However, based on fieldwork data from my doctoral research involving university lecturers, faculty deans and university leaders, some research participants perceived that academic freedom in Cambodia was 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 perceived to be politically motivated and/or designed and channelled in ways that aim to harm the rights of other people.

Although there have been reported cases where academics and especially students were banned by their universities from pursuing their research interests when they wanted to conduct research on certain sensitive research topics, the overall climate of academic freedom in Cambodia has arguably demonstrated tolerance.

To put the discussion on academic freedom into perspective, it is worth differentiating between academic freedom and freedom of expression (also known as freedom of speech). According to a definition by the University of Oslo (UiO), freedom of expression is “a right enjoyed by all persons”, whereas academic freedom is a right “exercised by persons engaged in research and teaching functions at higher levels”.

What this means is that, for average people, their views might be protected by the universal human right to freedom of expression, but for academic researchers, lecturers and other intellectual workers, their opinions are supposed to be protected by both freedom of expression and academic freedom. However, their views and how they express them have to be within the boundary permitted by law.

According to the same source (that is, UiO), not everything that is protected by academic freedom is covered by freedom of expression, and vice versa. For example, an academic or a researcher has the right to travel to the field to conduct research. This right, although protected by the right to academic freedom, is not protected by the right to freedom of expression. Similarly, opinions expressed by individuals who are not engaged in research and teaching are protected by freedom of expression, but not by academic freedom.

Thus, it raises the question of what role an individual plays when expressing their opinions. Are they doing it as an academic researcher or as an ordinary person? If they express their opinions as an academic, their views should be protected by both academic freedom and freedom of expression. If they express their views as an ordinary person, they should be protected by their freedom of expression.

However, because of this subtle distinction, confusion occurs and things sometimes get ugly. Academics or researchers are oftentimes punished for their academic views that should be protected by their right to academic freedom and freedom of expression.

Now back to the Cambodian context. Is it true that academic freedom in Cambodia is not severely curtailed, given Cambodia’s perceived drift towards authoritarianism, as typically conveyed by right groups and some Western media outlets?

Based on my own experiences as an academic and my ongoing interactions with other Cambodian academics for almost 10 years, I argue that the answer is yes, albeit not a resounding yes. In other words, 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.

Moreover, even though some academics whom I interviewed in 2019 for my PhD research acknowledged tough restrictions on certain sensitive topics that were discouraged or even banned by some universities in Cambodia, others believed that there was a degree of tolerance when it came to academic research. One of the participants 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, the restrictions on the conduct of research involving (very) sensitive topics in Cambodia that were acknowledged by some research participants reflect the overall view of Sorpong Peou, Professor of Global Peace and Security at Ryerson University in Canada, on academic freedom in Cambodia.

Peou, who gave a virtual talk on a topic of academic freedom and scholarship (organised by a Cambodian Scholars Facebook group) on 02 May 2020, writes on his website (, “Academic freedom is still a new idea in Cambodia because of historical and current political circumstances.” Based on his own professional experiences, he concludes, “Most Asian countries do not fully value academic freedom.” He also suggests political leaders, “Understand that academic freedom is what helps their countries develop scientifically, economically, socially, and politically.”

To conclude, given that academic freedom exists in Cambodia, although it is not in a full-fledged form like that in many developed countries, it is advisable that Cambodian academics or researchers as well as students avoid attacking others personally, especially political leaders, when expressing their views in speech or writing. Perhaps they should follow Professor Sorpong Peou’s advice on how to navigate in academic writing within Cambodia’s political contexts by adhering to two principles: “Fairness and Love”.

The views expressed are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of the Asian Vision Institute.

Heng Kimkong is a PhD Candidate in Education at the University of Queensland in 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 the author’s own.


Published by Kimkong Heng

A student, teacher, educator, and researcher

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