One of the Cambodian capital's best-known international schools has come under increased scrutiny as Turkey cracks down on institutions linked to the controversial cleric that Ankara says was behind last month's coup attempt.
Inside Turkey, tens of thousands of teachers, journalists, soldiers and judges have been dismissed or suspended from their positions. The purge, however, has also extended outside Turkey, as authorities try to dismantle institutions linked to cleric Fethullah Gulen, an international religious leader who continues to deny he had any links to the failed coup.
Those denials have done little to spare the schools linked to his movement.
With its hundreds of neatly uniformed students in kindergarten, elementary and high school, and hundreds more studying at its university, Zaman International School in Phnom Penh is not what comes to mind when the word ‘terrorism’ is thrown about.
Yet, Turkey’s ambassador to Cambodia said just that during a news conference at the embassy last month.
Zaman International, with its four campuses in the leafy parts of the Cambodian capital, was part of a ruthless global network trying to topple the Turkish state, Turkey’s ambassador, Ilhan Kemal Tug, said.
The ambassador expressed hope the Cambodian government would “understand the true nature of this terrorist organization” and shut down the school – including the kindergarten.
Opened in 1997, Zaman International School has more than 2,000 students in Phnom Penh who are taught by teachers from more than a dozen countries. It is licensed by the Cambodian Ministry of Education and is a member of the Council of International Schools. Students hail from many countries, representing the diverse mix of nationalities working and living in Cambodia.
The school’s ethos is nurture “responsibility” in students, said Hakan Atasever, director of public relations for the Zaman Group.
“To educate students to be capable enough to serve their own country,” he told VOA Khmer.
The government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accuses Zaman, as well as tens of thousands of individuals, institutions and entities within Turkey and internationally, of serving the interests of cleric Fethullah Gulen, a resident of the United States and an ally-turned-critic of Erdogan.
Erdogan blames the aging Gulen, 77, and his supporters for the bloody attempted coup on July 15, during which 300 people died. The president has left no stone unturned to expose what is described as the self-exiled Gulen’s ‘deep state’ within the Turkish state, and support networks abroad.
From Nigeria to Indonesia, Turkey’s ambassadors have requested governments in 50 countries shutter schools it claims are linked to Gulen. In Nigeria, the request extended to 17 schools, according to reports. In Indonesia, the request extends to nine schools, which Indonesia’s Culture and Education Minister, Muhadjir Effendy, said would not be closed down.
Zaman International School released a statement on its Facebook page saying the school's founder was motivated by the spiritual teachings of the exiled cleric, but Gulen had never had any official link with the school’s ownership, administration, or with any part of running it.
“We are saddened by the groundless accusation of us, the schools which have been operating for almost 20 years, being linked to this kind of heinous coup,” the school wrote, asking people to use the #IAMWITHZAMAN hashtag as a show of support.
It is unclear what position the Cambodian government will take.
Ros Salin, a spokesman for the Ministry of Education, told VOA Khmer that the issue was still at the bilateral level.
“It is a diplomatic issue between one country and other, therefore, the Education Ministry has nothing to do with just yet,” the spokesman said.
Management at Zaman is unhappy with the allegations, which are completely unfounded, Atasever said.
“As we stated in the media statement, we strongly condemn the coup attempt in Turkey. We are so unhappy about that. For Zaman School, this is the groundless claim,” he told VOA Khmer.
To counter the accusations of nefarious anti-Erdogan plots being hatched inside classrooms in Phnom Penh, the school has invited the Turkish ambassador to make public any evidence against the school.
Despite what the Turkish ambassador and the government in Ankara may say about Zaman International School and the need for its closure, students in Phnom Penh are standing by their alma mater.
“Zaman is not like a university where you have only Cambodian students studying there. It is full of people from different backgrounds and countries,” said Holasorya Soem, a sophomore student in banking and finance at Zaman University.
“Not only are there qualified professors teaching in classes, but it also provides diversity through each student’s experiences,” she said, referring to the many nationalities studying at Zaman.
Holasorya said she did not believe the school had any other motive than to provide a good education.
“It is just all accusation,” said Pitou Phy, a computer science student at Zaman University.
“In terms of quality and environment, Zaman makes for a better educational institution,” he said.
Pitou, who wants to be a software developer, said Zaman had played an important role in developing Cambodia’s human resource potential, particularly in information technology.
The government has been quiet on the matter since the allegations were made, Pitou noted, adding that he expected the issue to blow over, and for the school to continue its important work of educating.
“Cambodia still lacks human resource. In this case, Zaman has produced plentiful potential resources so far,” he said.
“I do not worry about any change to the school’s structure or anything.”