IN ASIA

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A Great Leap Forward? Mobile Internet for the Next Generation in Cambodia

October 19, 2016

By Silas Everett

This month, the global coffee giant, Starbucks, expanded its operations in Cambodia with a shiny new 7,000 square feet, two-story shop in the capital, Phnom Penh, just one year after entering the country—now one of the fastest growing economies in the world. This may lead some to ask: what is one of the largest Starbucks in Southeast Asia doing in one of its poorest countries?

Starbucks in Cambodia

Starbucks opened a new 7,000 square feet, two-story shop in the capital, Phnom Penh, just one year after entering the country—now one of the fastest growing economies in the world.

Cambodia’s economic “leap frogging” is not just for the café class. Look no further than the telecommunications sector. The Khmer Rouge Regime under Pol Pot and the civil war that ensued in the 1980s ravaged the country and all but destroyed fixed line telephones. In 1992, there were only 4,000 fixed lines for a population of almost 10 million. Because the government moved quickly to liberalize the market and allowed for private investment and competition, mobile had already surpassed fixed line by 1993, making Cambodia, where today almost 16 million people own a mobile phone, the first country in the world to have more mobile phone users than fixed line users.

The falling costs of mobile internet has been a blessing for the quarter of a million Cambodians who enter the job market each year. In lock step with the country’s decade-long 7 percent GDP growth rate, formal employment has coincided with a rapid uptake in smartphones. One-third of Cambodians owned a smart phone in 2015, and this number is expected to increase by 30 percent this year. Yet despite this growth, it is important to keep in mind that mobile internet is still out of reach for many who are below or near the poverty line and 3 million Cambodians have only just escaped poverty. In fact, almost half of the population is within $.30 per day of slipping below the poverty line.

From a low base, Cambodia’s jump in smartphone uptake continues to drive one of the fastest rates of mobile internet adoption in the region. According to the ITU, in 2010, only .5 percent of Cambodians were connected to the internet. By 2015, 31.8 percent were connected, expecting to grow to 40 percent in 2016. And, despite still being one of the poorest countries in Asia, Cambodia’s average internet speed is faster than in the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei. Last year, mobile broadband was rolled out to all 25 provinces.

In a country where 60 percent of the country lacks access to electricity, mobile internet is perhaps most disruptive across rural socio-economic groups. Traditionally, the average Cambodian’s social circle was solely limited to neighbors, classmates, and family. Recent surveys on mobile phones and internet supported by The Asia Foundation found that almost two out of five Cambodians claim to have access to a Facebook account. As the walls of the village are coming down, technological change is contributing to widening generational gaps and growing expectations for better jobs, wages, and livelihoods.

Urban residents are twice as likely to use Facebook than rural residents. There are almost two men who access Facebook for every woman that does. Yet, 82 percent of those with a university education had a smartphone compared to only 15.2 percent of those who have no formal education.

Mobile internet’s rise has coincided with the dropping of the veil of fear that has permeated post-genocide Cambodia—at least among the under 30 something demographic born after 1979. Today, if a Cambodian is on Facebook, he or she is twice as likely to say they discuss politics. In fact, the more urban, educated, and well off appear to be more likely to lean toward the opposition.

Cambodia’s small, open economy has led to social changes which have pressurized an expansive, but closed political system. Cambodia’s government, effectively controlled by the Cambodia People’s Party for two decades, has sought to allay worries of foreign investors surrounding political instability and legal uncertainty, while maintaining domestic legitimacy in the digital age.

However, in the lead-up to the 2017 local and 2018 national elections, tensions are running high. Any overt government interference of the net risks losing the youth vote and worse, sparking unrest. On July 10, a prominent political commentator on social media, Kem Lay, was shot dead in a gas station in broad daylight. Within an hour, social media was used to mobilize 5,000 people surrounding the gas station preventing security forces and medical personnel from removing the dead body from the site. Hundreds of thousands of people joined the procession for the funeral of Kem Lay.

Positively, Cambodia’s political parties have seized on Facebook as a direct line of communication to Cambodia’s bulging youth demographic. Coupled with an ambitious reform agenda, the government has sought to transform its image as a rigid bureaucracy that hinders the free flow of information to a responsive service provider that promotes two-way communication with the public. Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Facebook page fans grew from 120,000 in 2013 to over 5 million today. The Facebook page of the Ministry of Education Youth and Sport has grown to over 1 million followers.

Worryingly, Cambodia’s new telecommunications law gives ambiguous powers to censure, according to net freedom advocates. Yet the state’s most effective layer of control over Facebook appears to be the selective crackdowns on outspoken pundits which effectively creates a dome of self-censorship. More subtly, claims abound that interdiction equipment has been installed in ISPs.

While celebrating Cambodia’s great leaps forward, there is no substitute for sound government policy and investment in human capital and physical infrastructure. Such reforms will take time and hard work. Yet from the streets of Phnom Penh, where the well-heeled sip cups of cappuccinos, to the farmers in the paddies of Battambang, it is hard not to succumb to the palpable feeling that a critical juncture for reform is arriving soon.

Silas Everett is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in Cambodia. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.

Related locations: Cambodia
Related programs: Economic Opportunity, Elections, Strengthen Governance, Technology & Development
Related topics: Social Media

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