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Reader discretion is advised: ABSTRACT. The country of Cambodia, located in Southeast Asia, had a long history of oppressive governments and a deeply held Buddhist acceptance of oppression. Cambodian people believed very strongly in a strict hierarchical social order where they did not question those in power.

Sadly, Cambodia was best known throughout the world because the country suffered a terrible genocide from 1975-1979. Led by the notorious Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge regime executed nearly all of its educated citizens and its teachers, severely crippling the country. The Cambodian people were deeply traumatized from the experience.

Since 1993, at least $500 million of foreign aid from Western countries has poured in annually to help Cambodians rebuild their country. The general consensus among scholars was that the aid failed to improve the lives of Cambodians. Reasons for this failure included assumptions made by Western aid workers regarding the nature of Cambodians, their government, their values, their ideas surrounding education, and their meta-cognitive abilities.


This study attempted to generate evidence that Westerners’ lack of understanding of Cambodian culture played a part in preventing their efforts to help Cambodians. This thesis reported the results of an online survey given to Westerners who lived and taught in Cambodia. The purpose of the survey was to question Westerners on their knowledge of the Cambodian mindset.

Although the number of responses to the survey was small, some evidence suggested that Western efforts to educate Cambodians might have failed because Westerns were unaware of aspects of Cambodian cultural traits that stood in the way of true learning and comprehension. Read: Fourth Industrial Revolution 4.0


By tradition, poverty is primarily a rural phenomenon and ignorance is servitude.

Majorities are victims of social injustice. The level of corruption is staggering.

The two most important institutions like education, and justice systems are neglected, its future mortgaged, but society is casually unconcerned.

BACKGROUND. The Khmer Rouge reign of terror, the communist Vietnamese occupation, the decades of war and fighting, and a feared dictatorship significantly shaped Cambodians’ national psyche. Cambodia continued to be a traumatized nation, and many aspects of Cambodian culture nearly 40 years after the Khmer Rouge period reflected the pain, trauma, and lack of loyalty Cambodians feel (Ayers, 2000; Knowles, 2008, Brinkley, 2011). This was the Cambodian mindset.

It was also well documented that Cambodians were capable of extreme violence, and virtually incapable of compromise. The two choices Cambodians felt they had when faced with conflict was either complete passivity or violence (Brinkley, 2011, p.223). Cambodia was a country of passive, mistrusting people who were primarily concerned with appearing agreeable for the sake of personal survival or monetary gain.

Democracy as a concept was completely foreign to Cambodians. Instead they believed very strongly in the complex social hierarchy that was dictated by their deeply held, centuries old Buddhists teachings. Ninety percent of Cambodians were practicing Buddhists, and Buddhist concepts, such as learned helplessness and complete acceptance of hardships, were deeply engrained in the culture.

Since the sixth century, the concept of education for Cambodians had exclusively been the Buddhist ideal of learning one’s place in the social hierarchy. No schools aside from Buddhist temples existed in Cambodia until the 1940s, and even as late as the 1960s, a large percentage of the rural population could neither read nor write.

Cognitive skills and educational concepts that Westerners took for granted, such as asking questions, developing critical thinking skills, conceptualizing, and evaluating had simply never been part of Cambodian education or Cambodian life.

Why did countries around the world with intentions to help Cambodians become more self-sufficient fail for so many years?

One major reason for the failure of Western aid was the set of assumptions that Western foreign aid educators had about Cambodian people, Cambodian culture, Cambodian educational concepts, and Cambodians’ meta-cognitive abilities. Westerners projected an assumed expectation of a democratic mindset onto Cambodians that did not exist. Most Westerners also greatly overestimated the meta-cognitive skills of Cambodians because Westerners were unaware of Cambodian notions of “exclusively obedient education” and the focus on the social hierarchy.

This thesis attempted to generate evidence to examine one factor of the failure of foreign aid to improve the lives of the Cambodian citizenry.

Well-meaning foreigners, who came to train, teach, or help Cambodians arrived with huge assumptions about the culture. Most foreign workers greatly underestimated the value Cambodians placed upon the social hierarchy. Westerners did not understand that they themselves were placed toward the top of the hierarchy by Cambodians, and therefore Cambodians outwardly appeared extremely agreeable to them. Likewise, foreign educators failed to understand the deep mistrust Cambodians felt.

They misinterpreted Cambodians’ passivity for acquiescence and comprehension of the concepts they came to teach.

Foreigners’ Western teaching methods assumed that Cambodians understood how to manage their own learning in traditionally democratic, Western ways (evaluating, questioning, analyzing) and that Cambodians asked questions and/or shared their opinions in a classroom environment. Furthermore, Westerners greatly overestimated the meta-cognitive capacity of Cambodians. The Khmer Rouge murdered all of the educated people and left only illiterate, traumatized people whose Buddhist traditions taught them only to obey and never to question.

DEFINITIONS OF TERMS. Meta-cognitive skills – ability to exercise active control over the cognitive processes engaged in learning. Activities such as planning an approach a given learning task, monitoring comprehension, and evaluation of completion of a task are examples of meta-cognitive skills. Assessment – the systematic basis for making inferences about the learning and development of students. It is the process of defining, selecting, designing, collecting, analyzing, interpreting, and using information to increase students’ learning and development.

THE CAMBODIAN MINDSET. Cambodians referred to themselves, their language, their music, and their culture as being Khmer. The Khmer culture was ancient, and many Cambodians felt a strong attachment to the way their society was before the first French explorers arrived there in the 1860s. Khmer people lived in the jungle and on their rice fields.

Their primitive life of peasantry went unchanged from about the sixth century until the nineteenth century when the French first appeared. Many rural Cambodians continued to live a very primitive life that is virtually unchanged from life 1,000 years ago (Ayers, 2000; Brinkley, 2011).

Cambodians placed a high value upon the ways of their ancient Khmer culture. The
culture was always ultra hierarchical. Highly valued behaviors included knowing one’s place, bowing down to authority, being quiet and agreeable, and accepting hardships without question (Ayers, 2000; Brinkley, 2011).

Brinkley first explained the hierarchical power dynamics of ancient Cambodia. He explained not only the lack of feeling of obligation held by rulers to serve the people, but the peasantry’s complete acceptance of it. Long before the fear, trauma, and passivity that characterized modern Cambodian people, there was a dearly held core belief among them that dates back to the sixth century in the hierarchy of a culture.

EDUCATION. David Ayers (2000) authored a book describing the relationship between the Cambodian government and what he called the Cambodian educational crisis from the 1860s, when the French ruled Cambodia, through the year 2000 when the book was published.

On page 6, Ayers identified his book as “a chronicle of the continued development and educational failures of every one of Cambodia’s post independence ruling regimes.” Ayers argued that Western notions of modern development and the strict Cambodian hierarchy did not mix well: “pursuing development…is at odds with tradition and the cultural underpinnings of the state” (p. 3).

On page 3, Ayers wrote, “Put simply the [educational] crisis, was…a product of the disparity between the educational system and the economic, political, and cultural environments that it…intended to serve.”

Ayers believed that the Cambodian government’s purpose for education in Cambodia had long been to educate its citizens into passivity and acceptance of exploitation and abuse. He maintained, “Traditional education reinforced the social hierarchy presided over by the king and legitimized by the country’s Buddhist monastic order.…social regulation was the embodiment of the hierarchical political culture and was agreed to in principle, and in conduct, by those it exploited” (p. 17).

In other words, quite unlike Western education where power was respected yet questioned, Cambodian education served to keep its citizenry helpless, servile, and exploited, and more importantly, satisfied that this was the correct way for a society to function.

The gist of Ayers’ book was that attempts at genuine Western education in Cambodia continued to fail because it served the oppressive hierarchical government to keep its peasants uneducated. It had been that way in Cambodia for centuries, and Cambodians accepted it as correct.

Cambodians’ and Westerners’ notions of what constituted education were very different. From the Cambodian perspective, the first concept of traditional education was little more than learning one’s place in the social hierarchy. People learned intricate behaviors to show respect to those who were above them on the hierarchy, and likewise learned they could abuse or exploit whoever was below.

Cambodians traditionally learned all that they needed to know by watching and imitating the people around them. For centuries, they used their brains only to process what was visually right in front of them, and this served them well in their simple village life. Watching, learning, and imitating how everyone in the village treated each other was of extreme importance, as was watching and learning the household and farming skills required for contributing to the family.

Most of the country remained not just illiterate, but wholly without any value attached to asking questions. Acceptance of what was right in front of them, and seeking nothing higher than what they had was encouraged and valued.

Repeating the Khmer folk tales that reinforced knowing one’s place was the extent of the meta-cognitive skills Cambodians utilized for thousands of years.

Nothing in their “education” history required them to conceptualize, evaluate, or more importantly, question.

They were directed from an early age never to question, only to be agreeable and respect the hierarchy. Outside of the capital city Phnom Penh, Cambodia had no schools at all until the 1940s (Brinkley, 2011, p. 4). Before the French came, they had virtually no books, and until the 1960s few Cambodians could read or write (Brinkley, 2011, p. 337). Ayers (2000) pointed out, “Cambodia’s traditional educational system had always reinforced the concept of helplessness, the idea that a person was unable to determine their position within the social strata” (p. 28).

Some effort was made by the French to educate the elite Cambodians in Phnom Penh, but the goal was only to educate them enough to serve the French agenda.

Interestingly, Ayers (2000) also explained that when the French first appeared in Cambodia and began providing a chosen few with a Western education, it was the first inkling that Cambodians had that education from Westerners could provide them with upward social mobility. Ayers indicated that the concept “proved a significant factor in undermining the solidarity of the traditional, cohesive social system. The provision of modern education to Cambodian peasants was akin to a subtle social revolution” (p. 28).

By sharp contrast, Western education, beginning with TV shows such as Sesame Street, asked much more of children regarding meta-cognitive skills. Questions such as “what do you think will happen next?” and “why do you think she did that?” and “what would you do?” were commonly found in books, games, and early childhood lessons. Through the use of guessing games, puzzles, and other educational toys, Western students were taught to ask questions, and to think and develop their reasoning and critical thinking skills, while Cambodian students were taught to simply obey without considering why.

These very different concepts of education were at odds when well-meaning Westerners came to Cambodia to educate, train, and help Cambodians toward a better life. Westerners arrived with numerous assumptions and cultural biases, and they often greatly overestimated the meta-cognitive ability of Cambodians.

Power and one’s place within the hierarchy dictated every daily interaction for
Cambodians. This understanding of power coupled with Cambodia’s extreme poverty and its long history of war and violence came together to create a culture of people who naturally seized any small amount of power they had and used it to exploit whomever they could.

This hierarchical ideology began at the very top of Cambodian society – with both high-ranking government officials and Buddhist monks – and went all the way down to the way teachers treated their students.

It was natural and well-established in the Cambodian mindset that no one at the top of the hierarchy would even consider being anything but exploitive to those at the bottom.

Democratic concepts that were second nature to Westerners’ views were absolutely
foreign to Cambodians. For centuries, this culture functioned within this strict hierarchical belief system. Knowles (2008) identified the Cambodian mindset regarding their complete nonparticipation in government:

Citizen participation is far from a historical reality or an intuitive principle in the minds of Cambodians. Since 1950, the Cambodian people have lived through two monarchies; a series of military struggles for control of the national government; a secret bombing campaign by the United States; genocide and mass starvation at the hands of the Khmer Rouge; Communist Vietnamese occupation; a protracted civil war; displacement of hundreds of thousands of Cambodians (both abroad and internally); the destruction and rebuilding of the nation’s physical, social, educational, and political foundations; and in the past decade, a transition to a democratic system of governance. Each of these experiences has influenced Cambodian sense-making of citizen participation (p. 90).

It was important to note that this ancient belief system and the specific cultural characteristics that resulted from it were established long before the intense damage the Khmer Rouge had on Cambodians’ psyche.

All of these concepts – the strict hierarchy, the complete void of experience of democratic concepts, the 100% lack of expectation that government should do anything with its power but abuse it, the satisfaction in a kind of slavery, the incorrectness of speaking up or standing up for oneself, or reaching out to help your neighbor – they were all in place and had been part of the Khmer psyche for centuries.

Researchers often named the atrocities of the four year reign of terror that was the Khmer Rouge as the single explanation for the behavior of this culture, but the Cambodian character was well in place before 1975 (Ayers, 2000; Brinley, 2011).

Sophal Ear (2012) indicated this on page 8 of his book about the problem of foreign aid in Cambodia: “Until recently, it has been both fair and convenient to attribute all the country’s woes to the Khmer Rouge and call it a day.”

Berkvens (2009) agreed with this idea, and pointed out that many scholars perceived the Khmer Rouge regime as the source of all problems the country had, but saying this was far too easy an explanation. More and more people who studied Cambodia acknowledged that many of the country’s problems were much older than that (Ayres, 2000; Verkoren, 2005; Berkvens, 2009).

Many spoke of Cambodia’s “golden era” - the time in the 1950s and 1960s before the starvation and mass executions of the 1970s. Ayers (2000) debunked this popular myth, reported that Cambodia’s “prerevolutionary past is no more a golden era than is its present…both are characterized by political oppression, state sanctioned violence, factionalism, corruption, and absolute contempt by those with power for those over whom that power is exercised” (p. 6).

SOURCE: Cambodian Cultural Elements in Western Aid Workers' Teaching Practices. by Karen O’Grady. Spring 2017

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