After the tragedy and devastation of the civil war, a new young, tech savvy middle-class is emerging in Cambodia
Young motivated bloggers spearheading a web-led revolution
Monday, March 16, 2009
With its jagged, pot-holed streets and swarms of begging children, visitors are often shocked at the poverty in Cambodia, widely considered Asia's backwater behind Vietnam and China.
Shacks and slums are testament to a third of the population earning less than half a US dollar a day and Transparency International ranks the country, only recently freed from years of civil war, coups and rigged elections, as the 14th most corrupt in the world.
Yet tech-savvy youngsters are bringing a new voice to Phnom Penh's poverty-wrought landscape. Hanging out in cafes and clicking away on their laptops, they comprise a small but growing middle-class of baby-boomers born during the 1980s, after the Khmer Rouge genocide left 2million Cambodians – a quarter of the population – dead. Now they've come of age, and they're wiring Cambodia with it.
They're a tight-knit clique. Led by 26-year-old writer and photographer Bun Tharum, Cambodia's first blogger, a small group formed in 2006 to give workshops on social media. With their efforts, and Cambodia's King-Father Norodom Sihanouk starting his own blog, the group of 30 soon transformed into thousands. Now, they call themselves 'Cloggers' – Cambodian bloggers.
Tharum sees change on the horizon. "After all the hardship our country has experienced, we're trying to bring a new era of innovation," he says. "Blogs are helping break down barriers, get discussions going – something we need to move forward. It's the voice of the new generation."
Reaching the summit
The group reached a peak in popularity when it held the Cloggers' Summit in August 2007, attended by 200 international guests, including editors from Harvard Law School's Global Voices Online project. Attendees discussed social networking with a Cambodian twist, looking at how non-profits – which dominate Cambodia's economy – and students could use it, despite the country's low-bandwidth connectivity.
They hit another success in September with the first annual BarCamp Phnom Penh, an event that saw hundreds from around Southeast Asia attend, including Microsoft. "BarCamp was great for thinking outside the box," Tharum says. "We got Cambodians to start speaking their minds in that untraditional setting, the un-conference."
Much more can be attributed to the city's sudden blogging craze. While less than two per cent of Cambodians have web access on their own computers, Phnom Penh sports a huge mobile web culture. "It's amazing. Farmers are selling their land so they can buy a mobile phone and motorbike," says John Weeks, an American who heads Phnom Penh's popular House 32 web design firm. "You'll see Khmers [Cambodians] wearing sandals and eating street food while talking on their Blackberrys."
Phnom Penh has just been wired with 3G technology, far ahead of neighbouring countries Vietnam and Thailand, giving blogs explosive potential. Yet phones still haven't reached their peak, Weeks insists. "Users aren't afraid of technology. But phones aren't reaching their full potential," he says. "If ordinary Cambodians can overcome the language barrier and literacy barriers, phones have incredible gateway potential that would dwarf the current blog boom."
Huddled around in Phnom Penh's sparkling new KFC – Cambodia's first foreign franchise – the Cloggers whip out cutting-edge phones yet to catch on in the West. One begins texting in a frenzy – he's on Twitter and he's addicted. The others laugh, moving into a discussion of King-Father Norodom Sihanouk, the country's leader and highest profile blogger.
He's revered by older generations, but Cloggers don't share their zest for the monarch. "Young people don't care about the King when we blog," says Sreng Nearirath, a lawyer who blogs her thoughts in My World vs. Real Scary World. "We just blog because we want to talk about our lives and talk with each other." Cambodia, a conservative society, doesn't offer opportunities to open up and discuss your feelings, especially for women. That's what makes blogs so special here.
"Men have dominated technology fields, but we're seeing more and more women speaking their minds through blogs," says Chak Sopheap, a rising voice in Cambodia's women's empowerment movement. "They give us an outlet to gain selfesteem and be more informed about the world."
Sopheap is perhaps Cambodia's most controversial blogger, touching on subjects like trafficking, corruption, forced land evictions and women's rights. Her public profile is brave; most political bloggers in Cambodia, such as the popular "Details are Sketchy" and "KI Media" blogs, are anonymous. "If everyone keeps silent to intimidation, intimidation will gain its position.
"By making our voices heard, we can create change," she insists. She's pursuing a master's degree in international relations in Japan, which she credits for bringing new angles to her blog. "I've learned from a different cultural context about how crucial good governance is," she says, referring to Cambodia's corruption problem.
On the political power of blogs, Sopheap points to the reactions by Cloggers to Burma's 2007 Saffron Revolution. In a rare move, they co-ordinated demonstrations against the Burmese embassy and denounced Cambodia's support of the regime. Some also took part in International Bloggers' Day for Burma that same month, each dedicating a post to the protesting monks.
In nearby Malaysia, Myanmar and Thailand, governments actively chase down and jail critical bloggers. Vietnam is also ramping up censorship, authorities announcing in December they are to ask Google and Yahoo to help 'regulate' the web. Yet no Cambodian blogger has been blocked or arrested.
"Politicians have either not noticed political blogs or they're deeply suspicious of them," says Preetam Rai, former Southeast Asia editor of Global Voices Online, a blog aggregation service. "I think Cambodia comes under the first category. Practically speaking, blogs reach a very small percentage of Cambodian people. The politicians might as well ignore them for now."
But politics aren't the Cloggers' main focus. Most don't bother and many don't care. "Most Cambodian bloggers don't directly attack the government so, I believe, they won't be on the bad side of any government," Rai says. "The hope is that some from the current crop of bloggers end up in government in couple of years' time."
Rai also notes that Cambodia is a very young country and many high-ranking officials are likewise youthful and tech-savvy. "These are the people who can be influenced by blogs," he adds, optimistically. "The Cloggers are doing the right thing by showing people technology in a neutral way. Cambodia needs a generation that can discriminate information, by showing people online tools that can help them verify things."
Children of government officials, likewise, have been studying at universities abroad, bringing back knowledge of blogs and English fluency that gives them access to the internet world. "We see a lot of foreign influences coming into blogging culture," says Prum Seila, a journalist who blogs about Cambodian popular culture. "Government kids are coming back to Cambodia and blogging like us. They're also bringing ideas about democracy."
Seila thinks foreigners and foreign-educated Cambodians bring an 'open-source culture' because they're commenting on Clogs, challenging young Cloggers. "You wouldn't see anything like it if we weren't talking to foreigners. They bring ideas and challenges, and make us think differently about new things," he says.
Is English elitist?
Unlike Vietnam or Thailand, where bloggers write in their native languages, Cambodians tend to blog in English, linking them, says Prum Seila, with a global audience. "It's a good thing we blog in English, because how else can we inform the world about our thoughts and our problems?" he adds. "We're putting Cambodia on the map."
But Cloggers have had a long-standing debate over whether to blog in English or Khmer. English, they claim, is the language of the internet; web proficiency means reading and writing in English. Others disagree, saying a country shouldn't have to change language just to use the web.
That's why the Phnom Penh-based Open Institute has been perfecting its Khmer language Unicode. With the project including popular comedy blogger Be Chantra, whose blog "TraJoke" is in Khmer, the font has certainly been catching on. "Cambodia's English-speaking population is an elite," he says. "With Khmer, we can reach a wider audience and have a bigger impact."
But some Cloggers aren't convinced. Tharum contends that anyone who can use the internet can also read English. Seila thinks English brings much-needed international attention to Phnom Penh. Plus other Cloggers mention the possibility of getting censored once their writings are available for all of Cambodia to read.
Chantra and the Open Institute maintain their optimism. "As more Cambodians get access to computers, which is happening, more of them will write in Khmer," he says. Cambodia's growing literate middle class could indeed solidify Khmer above English. But their taste for foreign knowledge and culture could also reverse that trend."