A young Cambodian man was kicked out of a state-run school for physical education teachers because he was too short – and then beaten by police for protesting in front of the Ministry of Education in a video that went viral on social media.
Keo Sovannrith said he gained admission to the National Institute of Physical Education last November despite standing 162 centimeters (5 foot 4 inches) tall, under the 165 centimeter (5 foot 5 inch) minimum requirement for applicants.
In December, shortly after participating in an entrance ceremony at a Phnom Penh stadium later used to host the 2023 Southeast Asian Games, he was removed from enrollment with no explanation, along with 11 other prospective students.
For the past several weeks, Keo Sovannrith and some friends had gone each Monday to protest in front of the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports, demanding he be readmitted to the teacher training program.
Last Monday, Aug. 21, police surrounded them and started beating them.
Video of the incident was posted on Facebook, which is enormously popular in Cambodia, and went viral.
Keo Sovannrith told RFA Khmer that police officers kicked him in the chest and knocked his friend Leap Prathna unconscious before bundling them into a car and taking them to the Daun Penh Police Station for questioning.
“[At the station] they asked me what I was doing and I explained [my protest], but they said they didn't understand,” he said. “Then they tried to make me sign a contract [to stop protesting] which I refused to do. They said if I do not sign it and if I protest again, they will arrest us.”
He and his friends were eventually released without signing the document, but said he is still in pain from the beating.
On Wednesday, he told RFA that ministry representatives invited him to “discuss his case” over the weekend.
‘Discrimination and partisanship’
Ouk Chhayavi, a member of the Cambodian Independent Teachers Association, said that authorities had violated the rights of Keo Sovannrith and others by attacking and detaining them during a peaceful protest.
He said the former students were right to protest as their removal had cost them time and money, and negatively impacted their mental health.
“This is discrimination and partisanship, with a total lack of transparency on how the decision was made,” he said.
Repeated attempts by RFA to contact the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports Spokesman Ros Sovacha have gone unanswered.
Keo Sovannrith said that the institute’s enrollment requirements are too opaque and randomly applied.
“The requirement for age is 17-25 years old, but some people were admitted who were 30 or 40,” he said. “I was called to apply and participated for a month, but then I was removed, while the people who are 30 or 40 years old are still allowed to train.”
He and others had been holding protests in front of the Ministry of Education each Monday for several weeks, calling for the ministry to clarify the reason for his removal, before they were confronted by police.
Earlier this week, the ministry issued a letter stating that the institute adheres to enrollment requirements that were made public prior to the selection of candidates for the stadium ceremony, without providing further information.
Last year, the Ministry of Education had invited members of the public to apply for 150 spots at the institute for either a two-year physical educator course or a four-year course for physical trainers.
According to the announcement, candidates must be between the ages of 17 and 25, hold a high school diploma or equivalent, not be currently employed by the government, must remain unmarried until the end of the training courses, and be in good health and shape based on a physical examination.
Female candidates must be at least 155 centimeters (5 foot 1 inches) tall and male applicants 165 centimeters, it says, adding that the height and age requirements will be waived for those who are “selected for the SEA Games and win a gold medal.”
Translated by Sok Ry Sum. Edited by Joshua Lipes and Malcolm Foster.
This content originally appeared on Radio Free Asia and was authored by By RFA Khmer.