In The News

Cambodians Embrace Online Dialogue

March 11, 2009

Cambodia has over 13 million people, but currently, less than 2 percent have regular access to the Internet. Cambodia’s official language is Khmer, but these Cambodians who chat, e-mail, and blog on the Internet – and the approximately 23 percent of Cambodians who text with their mobile phones – find it easier to use English. While low Internet penetration, language barriers, and technical issues with using the Khmer scripts limit the amount of Cambodians who can engage in online dialogue, those Cambodians who are entering the international blogosphere are breaking a pattern of devastating silence and isolation.

The former King (or King Father), Norodom Sihanouk, now 86,  makes regular postings about Cambodia’s past and present on his website. The former Prince – fluent in Khmer, French, and English – posts communiqués and reactions to media reports regularly. Originally launched in 2002, the King’s website became a new digital medium for global visitors. Cambodian media largely use their websites as a source for information, taking the King’s comments and those of his critics, and translating them into Khmer. The King’s online conversation and personal digital medium is inspiring young Cambodians to engage the Internet as a forum for discussion and debate, and to learn English as a second language.

After the Khmer Rouge fell in the 1980s, Cambodia experienced a big baby boom; today 60 percent of the population qualifies as youth. Because of their English language skills and affinity for technology, Cambodian youth make up the largest number of Internet users in the country and are, like the King, engaging in online debate. This group of active Internet users writes mostly in English, given both the technical difficulties of inputting Khmer characters, as well as the widespread use of English among their audience: their own peers and the international online community.

This dynamic online dialogue has helped pave the way for a more open discussion in a country torn by civil wars in recent decades. The trauma inflicted by the Khmer Rouge regime (1975-1979) is still a major point of discussion in Cambodia. Cambodian intellectuals, who were once the target of mass killings, and their surviving children, use their knowledge of the English language and technology to express their opinions and views. To move Cambodia past years of silence, this is essential. The King has used his website to post his thoughts on social order and past politics, encouraging today’s Cambodian youth to use online forums, chat rooms, and blogs to discuss issues from everyday life to larger, social issues.

While this new emergence of online voices, in a language other than their own, doesn’t necessarily reflect the progressive thinking of the entire nation, it is a starting point of voiced, diversified opinions.

Unlike in neighboring Thailand and Vietnam, computer and Internet technology came late to Cambodia. Conflict destroyed the country’s telecommunication infrastructure. Software to support Khmer computer scripts began in the early 1990s, when e-mail communication was first introduced to the nation. At that time, most documents and texts written in the Khmer language and published on the Web were either scanned graphics or converted to another format to maintain readability.

While English is still the dominant language for Cambodian bloggers, in late 2006, global search engine giant Google released a Cambodian domain using a standardized set of Khmer scripts and fonts, commonly called Khmer Unicode. The move was significant for Cambodians, and they have quickly adopted the standard Khmer characters to exchange information in Khmer more conveniently. This progressive move is allowing for a greater number of Cambodians to join the virtual conversation and discussion. The lack of Intranet infrastructure inhibiting 98 percent of the Cambodian population from logging on remains a major problem, but the increase in online discussion and dialogue is a promising trend for Cambodia.

Tharum Bun is the Information Technology Manager at The Asia Foundation in Cambodia. He’s also a contributing writer for Global Voices Online, a citizen media project founded at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, Harvard Law School. Known widely as one of Cambodia’s first bloggers (perhaps the first), Tharum’s blog can be read at http://tharum.info, and he can be reached at tbun@asiafound.org.

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