Prime Minister Hun Sen called for an end to the coercive disciplining of students, in response to the action of a high school staff member in Battambang province who cut students’ hair in class as part of “school discipline enforcement”.

Hun Sen was speaking at a graduation ceremony for Western University (WC) seniors in Phnom Penh on January 26.

The incident at Samdech Techo Hun Sen Sampov Loun High School in the province’s Sampov Loun district sparked many negative reactions and heated debate on social media, with most agreeing that the act was inappropriate.

“I think it’s pretty clear that what he did was wrong. I’m not talking about all teachers nationwide, I’m just referring to the one teacher at the school – and that’s a high school that I built,” he said.

“This teacher needs some lessons himself. If he wants to correct a student’s behaviour, he does not need to bring an electric clippers to school to cut their hair in the middle of class. If they have students whose hair does not conform to the school standards, then prepare a proper time to give haircuts to them.

“Besides, the hair of that student just looked normal to me, it wasn’t long. The teacher’s hair was apparently longer than his students’,” he joked.

Hun Sen also called for a change in educator attitudes away from using “outdated” coercive methods to control or penalise students and instead talk to them privately. In this case, he said, the teacher could ask if they will agree to have their hair cut voluntarily.

Yi Songky, director of the provincial Department of Education, Youth and Sport, could not be reached for comment on January 26.

However, he previously explained on January 24 that the case was done according to the practice of the school’s disciplinary council, and the school management committee and guardians agreed that the male students should all have similar tidy and short haircuts.

Songky said that during the disciplinary sweep on January 23, there were 23 male students who refused to follow the school rules about hair styles so the disciplinary council cut their hair for them.

As of January 26, people have been posting many photos showing the students getting haircuts. The high school’s Facebook page has been shared more than 30,000 times and nearly 20,000 comments have been made on the topic, with the majority expressing dissatisfaction.