International Relations as a Discipline in Cambodia: Still Nascent but Developing.

AuthorChheang, Vannarith

International Relations (IR) is a relatively new academic discipline in Cambodia. After gaining independence from France in 1953, Cambodia's academic institutions did not initially offer courses or programmes relating to IR or international studies. By 1970, the Royal University of Phnom Penh, the largest public university in Cambodia, had 5,200 students enrolled in eight departments: linguistics and humanities, science and technology, law and economics, medicine, pharmacy, commerce, pedagogy and teacher training. However, the protracted civil war further curtailed the development of academic research. In particular, under the Khmer Rouge, which ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979, universities across the country were forced to close. After the collapse of the Khmer Rouge regime, some public universities reopened in the early 1980s. By the early 2000s, several private universities had been established and have since become key providers of higher educational services in Cambodia. (1)

In Cambodia, teaching and research in IR has developed incrementally since the early 2000s, driven by supply and demand. IR programmes at private academic institutions were first introduced at the undergraduate level and then at the postgraduate level. Initially, foreign faculty members from the West took the lead in developing these IR programmes, despite not having strong expertise in IR since they were mainly English teachers with some academic background in the social sciences. By the late 2000s, some Cambodian graduates who had returned after undertaking higher education overseas (majoring in political science, social science, economics and international law) participated in developing IR programmes and delivering IR courses in Cambodia. These young Cambodian graduates formed the first generation of Cambodian researchers and lecturers in IR.

Based on survey results and reflexive stocktaking, this article examines the development of IR in Cambodia and the challenges and opportunities to advance the debates on Global IR. The survey was carried out among Cambodian IR researchers and lecturers with the purpose of understanding the landscape of IR scholarship in four key areas: teaching; research and publication; theoretical preferences; and challenges to advancing Global IR in the Kingdom.


The academic discipline of IR in Cambodia has been evolving steadily since the turn of the century. Altogether, the IR academic community in Cambodia consists of six universities and four think tanks. Private academic institutions, such as the Pannasastra University of Cambodia and the University of Cambodia, were the first institutions to introduce IR programmes in 2003. In comparison, the three publicly-funded universities--the Royal University of Phnom Penh, the Royal University of Law and Economics and the Royal Academy of Cambodia--introduced courses and programmes related to IR much later, in the early 2010s. Other new private universities, such as the Paragon International University, the American University of Phnom Penh and BELTEI International University, also began offering IR courses in the late 2010s. Aside from the Royal Academy of Cambodia, which only offers courses in the Khmer language, the rest of the aforementioned universities offer IR courses in English.

In Cambodian academia, the discipline of IR is either generally part of other core disciplines or comes under the umbrella of other faculties or departments. For instance, the Pannasastra University of Cambodia offers undergraduate and postgraduate programmes in IR under the Faculty of Social Sciences and International Relations. The University of Cambodia's IR programme is taught at its College of Social Sciences, and the Royal University of Law and Economics has placed its IR programme in the Faculty of Public Administration. In contrast, the Royal University of Phnom Penh created the Department of International Studies under the Institute of Foreign Languages in 2016, while Paragon International University offers undergraduate and postgraduate programmes in political science and IR. The Royal Academy of Cambodia created an International Relations Institute of Cambodia in 2005.

Aside from IR-related teaching programmes in tertiary institutions, local independent think tanks such as the Asian Vision Institute, the Cambodia Institute for Cooperation and Peace (CICP), the Centre for Khmer Studies and Future Forum have made an impact on the study of IR in Cambodia through their research and publications, academic and policy dialogues as well as media commentaries and interviews. These institutions were also instrumental in establishing several informal arrangements to strengthen the professional and social networks among Cambodian IR scholars. For instance, the Asian Vision Institute created a discussion group using the Telegram mobile application called "Cambodian IR Scholars", which consists of more than 80 members from different disciplines. Moreover, the National Institute of Diplomacy and International Relations (NIDIR) of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation plays a bridging role between Cambodian IR scholars and policymakers by offering short courses on diplomacy and international affairs to Cambodian government officials. In addition, CICP and Future Forum have developed capacity-building programmes on research and writing in IR for youths with support from The Asia Foundation and the Australian government under the Ponlok Chomnes programme, which "is a four-year initiative to strengthen the capacity of the knowledge sector" aimed at "creating an enabling environment for policy dialogue". (2) Participants of these programmes have written media opinion-pieces and short policy papers on Cambodia's foreign policy and international issues.

Data Collection and Findings

The data collection team distributed 60 questionnaires by email to Cambodian scholars teaching and working at various academic and research institutions in Phnom Penh. Twenty responses were received, amounting to a response rate of 33.33 per cent. Out of the respondents that took part in this survey, 85 per cent were males and 15 per cent were females, reflecting the gender imbalance within the Cambodian IR academic community. Most of the respondents (60 per cent) were university lecturers, while 30 per cent were researchers or research fellows, while the other 10 per cent were IR programme coordinators. The online survey was distributed between May and August 2020. In addition, five semi-structured interviews were conducted with IR lecturers to gain a deeper understanding of the state of IR as a discipline in Cambodia.

Teaching IR

The survey showed that English was the main medium of instruction and communication: 40 per cent of the respondents used English, 35 per cent used both English and Khmer, while only 10 per cent used the Khmer language. In addition, textbooks in English are widely used. This differed from other Southeast Asian countries surveyed in this special issue, such as Thailand and Indonesia, where a combination of textbooks written in English and the local language are used for teaching. The use of English as the medium of instruction reflects the high degree of internationalization in Cambodia's higher education sector. In the 1990s, competence in English became increasingly important as a criterion for career advancement, especially for those working in international organizations and foreign-funded nongovernmental organizations. As such, since the late 2000s, English has been the preferred medium of instruction at some public and private universities to meet the growing demand from students and employers.

The survey findings show that IR teaching programmes focus on the discipline of IR, including IR theories (70 per cent) and historical events and contemporary issues (10 per cent) (see Figure 1). However, looking at the titles of actual IR-related courses offered by the various universities, the teaching programmes also included area studies and case studies.

This emphasis on IR disciplinary knowledge is reflected in some of the country's more prestigious institutions that offer IR programmes. For example, at the Royal University of Law and Economics, IR courses on offer include Introduction to International Relations I and II, International Economy, International Negotiation, Conflict Resolution, ASEAN's International Relations, and Globalization. Meanwhile, the Royal University of Phnom Penh's Department of International Studies offers comprehensive courses on IR, including International Relations I and II, Critical International Relations Theories, Introduction to East and Southeast Asia, Model ASEAN Summit, ASEAN in Regional and Global Contexts, Government and Politics in Southeast Asia, Political Thoughts and Ideologies, Global Governance, the United Nations and its Agencies, Model United Nations, Comparative Politics, International Political Economy, Research in International Studies, Civil Society, Foreign Policy Analysis I and II, Peace Studies, Globalization and Social Change, Strategic and Security Studies, and Contemporary Terrorism. The Political Science and International Relations programme at the Paragon International University similarly offers a range of comprehensive courses on IR.

Concerning reading materials for undergraduate students, many respondents indicated that empirical knowledge and disciplinary knowledge were equally important. The survey findings illustrate that reading materials for undergraduates should primarily concentrate on historical events and contemporary issues (80 per cent) as well as disciplinary theories, methods and debates (75 per cent). Reading materials at the postgraduate level should similarly focus on empirical case studies and theories. For postgraduate students, the respondents suggested that their reading materials should include texts discussing states' foreign policies and strategies...

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