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A Discussion with Sister Luise Ahrens, Maryknoll Cambodia Country Representative

With: Luise Ahrens Berkley Center Profile

August 7, 2014

Background: Maryknoll Sister Luise Ahrens has been described as one of the main sources of social networks among professionals and academics in Cambodia. She has worked on education issues there since 1991, witnessing the painful rebuilding of an education system decimated deliberately by the Khmer Rouge regime and also by decades of conflict. In Phnom Penh in August 2014, she and Katherine Marshall discussed some of the challenges facing Cambodia at present and the complex roles of religious organizations and especially Christians in Cambodia. She emphasized the state of education but also addressed the wide range of development issues in which the Maryknoll Cambodia is involved; she serves as the country representative for the NGO Maryknoll. Sister Luise is eminently practical, blunt in her assessments (she is refreshing in her unwillingness to mince words), and generally hopeful in her view of progress and the future of Cambodia.

What took you to Cambodia and what has kept you here?

I came and have remained as a Maryknoll sister. I had worked in Indonesia, from 1972 to 1982, and then served as president of the Maryknoll Sisters Congregation. I wanted to return to the field when my term ended. At the time, the large refugee camps along the Thai border where many Cambodians had congregated were closing, and people were returning to a Cambodia devastated by decades of war and conflict. I was assigned there in 1991, and have been here since (thus for 23 years).

What is the nature of the Maryknoll program in Cambodia?

Maryknoll is in Cambodia to struggle alongside Cambodia’s poor citizens, to help them reach their goals for themselves, their society, and their country. We aim to help them strengthen the building blocks of society that will strengthen peace. We say that we walk with them on the path to peace in their hearts. Maryknoll has an unambivalent commitment to Cambodia's people. We focus our energies on working towards excellence in education and also meeting the needs of the blind, the deaf, landmine amputees, and children endangered by filthy water and other dangers. More important than Maryknoll's specific projects in Cambodia is our no-strings-attached purpose for being in the country. The Maryknoll people, representing USA Catholics in Cambodia, choose simply to work together in journeying with the Cambodian people, without regard for title or seniority. The team learns together about what is needed and how each member can help best, and how we can cooperate with existing Cambodian or international relief and development agencies.

What is the Maryknoll presence today in Cambodia?

There are five sisters, three priests, two men lay missioners and nine female lay missioners. We are involved in a wide range of activities, including HIV and AIDS, working with children, the deaf, and the disabled, and in various community projects. We are also involved in combating trafficking, including addressing its root causes and supporting those who have been victims of the system. We run some homes for vulnerable children, especially those affected by HIV and AIDS. We also have home-based care programs. We meet once a week as the Maryknoll community to share our experience and our hopes. We are an international NGO, not a Cambodian organization. We have about 200 Cambodian staff who work with us on the various Maryknoll projects.

We are also part of Catholic and NGO coordination groups; these provide some coordination and information sharing which is valuable in itself. There is a wide range of NGO type activities in Cambodia to this day and most NGOs and religious groups are involved in a wide range of social services.

As an example, one Maryknoll associate priest has a Ph.D. in psychology and he is working on a remarkable program of mobile mental health clinics that travel each week to distant villages. Mental health care is at a very early stage here. What happens to people is horrible; many are kept in cages, locked up. So he is working on a program to begin to change attitudes and establish and systems, however basic, for mental health. The sisters have been involved in HIV and AIDS care from the start.

You have witnessed the education system of Cambodia being rebuilt virtually from scratch. Nonetheless many are concerned about the poor quality of education in Cambodia.

How do you see progress towards excellence on education?

As in other areas, I see progress and hope, but also many problems to confront.

The most critical issue is government commitment to education. I do not see the kind of financial commitment that would be needed to develop a system that is truly excellent or competitive, in a very competitive region. There is lip service and pockets of commitment including the minister of education, but not the all out focus on quality and achievement that is needed.

There is a sharp focus right now on dealing with the challenges of corruption in education, which are so pervasive that children must pay for virtually every single thing to do with their education. The new minister of education has announced that he is confronting this head on, notably through the national high school exams that are taking place this week. He wrote some of the test questions himself and is collaborating with the anti corruption agency to ensure that no substitutes can take the exams for students and nothing (crib sheets, mobile phones for example) can be brought into the exam rooms. We will see what happens! There are some fears that only a small share of those who take the exams will pass if indeed they are administered honestly.

While the gross enrollment rate in primary school is 96 percent, rates of enrollment go down quickly as the grades progress. Girls drop out in fourth or fifth grade because they are needed at home.

There is considerable focus now on addressing the problems of higher education and ensuring proper government oversight of institutions of higher learning. The World Bank is working with the government on a paper that will highlight the main issues and options for action. There has been rapid change since I first arrived in 1991, when the higher education system was decimated. Today there has been much progress and many new institutions but what it amounts to is a wild west situation, with 106 universities (if we count correctly, no mean feat given the many entrepreneurs at work in the field). Quality is very mixed.

A further issue is that many who lived through the hard times of the Khmer Rouge and subsequent years of isolation and conflict did not have the opportunity to get a quality education. Today there are excellent younger scholars coming into the institutions to work, especially those who have had a chance to study overseas at excellent universities. They are doing good work and they are a big part of the solution. But it will take some time before what they can do is fully institutionalized. The ministry of education is finally coming to terms with the disastrous consequences of allowing low-quality universities, especially for-profit higher-education institutions that have popped up around the country in recent years, to continue operating without oversight.

There are many actors across the education system, private, religious, and others, with virtually no strategy and coordination. Some are excellent, but many are not.

This matters for Cambodia’s future. In 2015 the ASEAN job markets will open up. Regional integration is going to be a hard blow for these young Cambodians who think they are going to be able to compete successfully with others in ASEAN countries for jobs. That will not happen and it will be a terrible shock for Cambodians. Programs at the Royal University of Phnom Penh (RUPP) like its strong English language and career counseling can help but there is far to go before Cambodia’s education system is competitive. Cambodia is likely to provide the lowest-wage workers for the region until the situation changes.

There is much to be pessimistic about in Cambodia today: lots of problems, corruption among them, and the huge gaps between rich and poor. But there are also many positive things. I am convinced that things are getting better. The complication is that it is like the wheat and the tares (in Matthew 13: 24). Or wheat and weeds. They are growing together, so tightly, that you really cannot cut out the weeds. But things really are getting better! As the man in the Bible said, when asked if his men should cut the wheat and tares together, “No, lest while you gather up the tares you also uproot the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest, and at the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, ‘First gather together the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them, but gather the wheat into my barn.’"

What is the status of the NGO law that was the subject to intense concern some years ago?

I am not sure where the draft law stands. Much that was in it was reasonable because NGOs working in Cambodia should be regulated and adhere to government policies. I believe the law was, however, put in abeyance for a period, during the elections and aftermath. What is at work is basically a concern about NGOs that are involved in human rights. There are no real issues with the NGOs that provide social services.

The issue of how best to address human trafficking tends to be rather divisive in Cambodia. What is the main priority in your view?

For many who have been trafficked, and those who are at risk, the most important priority is education. What many need is accelerated programs to complete their basic education, then support in vocational training.

For vulnerable children what are central issues?

There are many gaps in the care systems and often families are simply not able to cope. When illness or death happens there is no support system. The communities often fail. The situations are heart-breaking. And international adoption of Cambodian children has been completely closed down. It is all very well to think that families will care for children but often it does not happen. A man may lose his wife and marry again, and his second wife does not want his children. The situations are tragic and often children are simply abandoned. It is disingenuous to think that existing systems can cope with the needs. Some good programs try to educate parents at the community level. Among the excellent programs are Don Bosco and the Missionaries of Charity. But the latter simply cannot cope with children who are left with them and there is no scope at all for adoption. As I said, the situations are heartbreaking.

Do you know of Buddhist organizations involved with orphans and vulnerable children?

There are some good programs but not many. Often the wats (temples) in the countryside provide rudimentary education, and they often offer their land for the building of schools. International donors are focusing now on building schools, including those for early childhood education.

We hear complaints about Christians whose development work looks like proselytizing. Do you see this as a problem?

I am pleased that Maryknoll is very clear today in its approach. We do not mix our work with any effort to convert or, more broadly, in any sense communicate that the local religious beliefs are in any fashion inferior. That was not always true in the past, but it is today. We work with genuine respect for the religious traditions we find in Cambodia. But there are many Christians and even Catholics who do not make this distinction. For Cambodian Buddhists, they find Christian and Catholic notions of exclusivity very odd. Buddhists do not have that notion at all, that when you join one faith you must leave another. They also tend to find the notions of rigor about belief hard to accept. Buddhism tends to be much more fluid and inclusive.

Do you have any sense of the kinds of fundamentalism that is reported in Myanmar and Sri Lanka among Cambodian Buddhists? Or among the Cham Muslims?

No. There really is nothing like that.

There are generally good relationships between Catholics working in Cambodia and Buddhist leaders and monks. An example is Father Ponchaud, the MEP priest who was in Cambodia in 1975 when the Khmer Rouge arrived. He is a wise observer with many relationships with Buddhist leaders. He can be irascible and does not like Americans because of our historical role in South East Asia but he has many excellent insights into religion and culture here.

How do you keep your hope alive in dark times? You say that you see things getting better. What would you say are the main signs of progress?

I place great hope in the new scholars who are coming up, in the universities and in government. They are young and competent. We are seeing the rebirth of research programs. Of course there is still a long way to go.

When I arrived in Cambodia in 1991, 85 percent of the people with a high school education or beyond had been killed during the Khmer Rouge period. In the beginning, we had traumatized people teaching traumatized people. The Royal University of Phnom Penh was the first university to re-open in 1980 and it had four professors in the first year. There were virtually no secondary school teachers. The primary schools were a shambles. The situation today is totally different. There are now 20,000 students at the Royal University. We have partnerships with many foreign universities which are willing to open their doors to our young people. Students have the opportunity to study abroad, in Australia, the United States, New Zealand, Germany and the Philippines. So, things are changing, but as we know, formation of higher education academic staff is a long-term process, so those accompanying the process here have to be in it for the long haul.

The verdict in the International Court Trial of Khmer Rouge officials are being announced this week. What kinds of reactions do you hear?

There is merit in seeing some action and some sense of closure. Few, however, are really satisfied either with the verdicts or with the process. There is a wide awareness of the extraordinary costs of the trials—some $110 million so far. And the fact that those on trial are in their 80s, and unlikely to serve much time in prison, escapes few people.