Cambodia Education and Religion


According to UNESCO, the literacy rate of the population over the age of 15 was a good 78% in 2015. Although this is a clear improvement compared to 1990 (62%), the value is still significantly below the Southeast Asian average of over 90%. Women are particularly affected: around 28% of the female population can neither write nor read. Illiteracy is even higher in rural areas than in urban areas, where, statistically speaking, it is most common among older women. Offers in the field of adult education are still very rare and limited to private, internationally financed providers.

Situation of the educational institutions

Even more than 30 years after the end of the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia’s education system is still suffering from its consequences: The Maoist-nationalist communists abolished school education in favor of ideological indoctrination and systematically destroyed teaching materials and textbooks; School and university buildings had other uses. The vast majority of teachers, researchers, technicians, and other skilled workers were murdered or died of starvation and disease. 90% of all teachers lost their lives under the Khmer Rouge, only a few managed to flee abroad.

The education system has been completely rebuilt since 1979. The 1993 constitution promises free schooling for nine years, but informal fees persist. Today the education system suffers particularly from insufficiently well-trained teachers who, despite some salary increases since the 2013 parliamentary elections, still earn very little and (have to) look for alternative sources of income at the expense of their students. In addition, there are few good teaching materials available, and authoritarian frontal teaching remains the dominant didactic method.

Since there is no compulsory schooling, many children in rural areas continue to work in their families’ rice fields and therefore do not go to school regularly. But while more than 95% of children attend elementary school at least irregularly, the proportion in secondary schools is only 45% and only 16% enjoy tertiary education. The higher education system includes various institutions such as state universities, technical and vocational schools, as well as numerous private providers that operate teaching institutions of all kinds, unfortunately often at a very low level. On the political priorities, in recent years, the strengthening of tertiary educational offers has been important, primarily in the creation of alternatives to universities for training skilled workers. According to, Cambodia is still primarily dependent on foreign schools in this area.

Learning a foreign language, especially English and Chinese, is very popular among young people in one of the numerous private schools. Since 2009, the local Goethe Center has also offered qualifying German courses in Phnom Penh.

Cambodia Education

Religion and civilization

The Buddhism, although since the third century BC in Southeast Asia at present, since the 15th century, the popular religion to which around 95 percent of the population profess. Cambodia’s Theravada Buddhism is even more strongly influenced by animistic elements and rituals of ancestor worship than in some neighboring countries. In everyday life, Buddhism is far more important to the elderly than to young people or middle-aged Khmer people. Monks, on the other hand, experience the highest level of respect and appreciation from all Buddhists in Cambodia.

Under the Khmer Rouge, 90% of Christians and most of the Buddhist monks were murdered, and religion itself should completely disappear from people’s lives and consciousness. In the 1980’s there were times of greater freedom, but Christians have only been allowed to celebrate public worship services since 1990, just as religion in Cambodia only experienced a new upswing since the beginning of the previous decade, which is also reflected in the number of newly founded monasteries. Although Buddhism is recognized as the state religion by the constitution, followers of other faiths can usually practice their respective religion undisturbed.

Four percent of the people living in Cambodia profess Sunni Islam. 80% of the Muslim population is represented by the Cham ethnic minority, plus the Chvea and, as a third group, followers of Imam San.

Buddhist monks had emerged as supporters of the democratization process on a civil society level, but Luon Sovath and But Buntenh, the most famous of them, have fled Cambodia in recent years. Although pagoda committees can make an important contribution to conveying the concept of democratic rule at the local level, political control over organized Buddhism still reduces the monastery’s potential to promote democracy. In addition, social change brings serious worldly challenges – the sexual abuse of monastery students is only the most prominent example – in the monasteries, which are consistently hushed up by the government-loyal leadership.

Despite this, Theravada Buddhism and the Khmer civilization are still inextricably linked. But that was not always the case – Angkor Wat itself is a Hindu temple, even if it is used by Buddhist monks today. It was not until King Jayavarman VII, the greatest builder of Angkorian high culture, that Buddhism first (and only temporarily) achieved the status of the state religion.

The Angkor Archaeological Park near Siem Reap in the north-east of the country is still considered to be the cultural focal point of Cambodia, but also in large parts of mainland Southeast Asia. The preservation of the world cultural heritage turns out to be an increasingly difficult undertaking, which is due not least to the annually increasing number of tourists. In addition to Angkor Wat, the Hindu temple Preah Vihear is the second most important national symbol of Cambodia – not least because of the border disputes with Thailand.

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