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Hun Sen Says First Lady’s Education Initiative Lacks a Plan—and Money

Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen, center, gestures during a ceremony inaugurating the country's longest bridge in Neak Loeung, southeast of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Wednesday, Jan. 14, 2015. Hun Sen, Cambodia's tough and wily prime minister, marks 30 years

Prime Minister Hun Sen on Wednesday criticized the visit of First Lady Michelle Obama, saying her 'Let Girls Learn' initiative is not funding the education of Cambodian girls.

Obama had met with schoolgirls in Siem Reap province, encouraging them to stay in school and ignore naysayers and the factors that make it difficult. Her initiative aims to lower the dropout rate of girls in 11 countries, by working through the Peace Corps and communities to find local solutions to improve girls’ education.

“Her mission is very good, but I suggest the United States should help completely and not play like this,” Hun Sen was quoted saying by the Phnom Penh Post, during a speech at the National Institute of Education on Wednesday. “It is just playing around. It is not good.”

Hun Sen appeared angered after a request by the Education Minister to fund the university educations of 10 girls, who are currently only funded through high school by the NGO Room to Read, which Obama visited on Saturday.

“I thought the United States would give scholarships to those students until they complete university, but that’s not [the case],” Hun Sen said. “I had strongly hoped [that was the situation], but she just came here to choose people and then [left] it to the Ministry of Education.”

Obama’s initiative, however, is not about funding education of a select group of girls, but of getting at the root problems that keep a disproportionate number of girls out of school, particularly in impoverished rural communities.

But Hun Sen said the initiative lacked a plan and commitment.

“So I wish to ask the US to fully help, don’t just help sporadically,” he said. “I wasn’t waiting to say this after Mrs. Michelle Obama had already left, but I just came to realize about this yesterday.”

His concern, he added, is that his government will be blamed when more female students in different places are selected to learn only in high school, making his government responsible for their study in the university.

“So, my apologies,” he said. “Apologies to our US friends. Just wish to state that this issue would sometime overburden of the host country, but the campaign generally is good, because we see that the situation of the dropout of young female students are more than male students. That’s why there is this campaign. This campaign requires a clear goal, to what level should they be trained? Otherwise the recruiters will aim at university completion while they don’t provide support. Who will solve this? In the long run it will become political context that will put the blame and responsibilities on the government.”

Yem Ponearith, a lawmaker for the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, said Cambodia’s government should have its own plan to support education—with or without foreign aid. “We suggest having a package budget large enough for real reform for quality education,” he said.

Jay Raman, a spokesman for the US Embassy, told VOA Khmer that the US government has provided more than $40 million to support education in Cambodia since 2003. 'Let Girls Learn' is not a scholarship program, he said.

“The Let Girls Learn initiative is a US government-wide effort involving the Peace Corps, US Agency for International Development, State Department, and others to work with counterparts around the world to break down barriers that prevent girls from getting an education so that they can help their families, contribute to their communities, and determine their own destinies,” he said.