PHNOM PENH, Cambodia A Cambodian blogger asked recently whether former King Norodom Sihanouk should be considered the country’s founding father of blogging.
He got no definitive answer. Cambodian blog watchers say the 84-year-old monarch may not have known he was blogging when he unveiled his Web site, updated daily by his staff since 2002 with his views on national affairs, correspondence with his admirers and news about his film-making hobby.
But it is clear that young, tech-savvy Cambodians are joining Sihanouk in embracing blogs. The trend is changing their lives and their communication with people abroad – even as electricity remains an unreachable dream for most households in this poverty-ridden nation of 14 million.
“This is a kind of cultural revolution now happening here in terms of self-expression,” said Norbert Klein, a longtime resident from Germany who is considered the person who introduced e-mail to Cambodia, through a dial-up connection in 1994. “It is completely a new era in Cambodian life.”
Cambodians with the skills and the means to blog are discovering a wider world and using the personal online journals to show off their personalities and views about the issues facing their country, from corruption to food safety.
“Blogging transforms the way we communicate and share information,” said 25-year-old student blogger Ly Borin.
To his surprise, a recent blog post of his on poor food safety in Cambodia drew a comment from an international traveler. He said interaction with a stranger living perhaps half a world away was unimaginable in Cambodia just a few years ago.
Cambodia became one of the most isolated countries in the world during the late 1970s, when the communist Khmer Rouge were in power and cut off virtually all links with the outside world as they applied radical policies that led to the death of 1.7 million people. The Khmer Rouge were ousted in 1979, but the country is still struggling to rebuild. Fewer than one-third of 1 percent of Cambodians have regular Web access.
If the Internet opened a path for news from outside Cambodia, blogging is turning the path into a two-way street.
“Having a blog brings me up to date with technology,” said Keo Kalyan, a 17-year-old student whose nom-de-blog is “DeeDee, School Girl Genius! Khmer-Cyberkid.” “I can do social networking and contact other bloggers” around the world.
She and three peers organized the first-ever Cambodian Bloggers Summit – the “Cloggers Summit” to the cognoscenti. Foreign professional bloggers and 200 university students took part in the two-day meeting in Cambodia last month to trade ideas.
Her team also has conducted 14 workshops for 1,700 students to share their knowledge about digital technology.
Raymond Leos, an American professor of communications and media arts at a Phnom Penh university, said Sihanouk showed his countrymen blogging’s broad potential.
After seeing TV images of same-sex weddings in San Francisco in 2004, Sihanouk posted a statement expressing his support for gay marriage. When a foreigner allegedly wrote him an e-mail criticizing his stance on the subject, Sihanouk shot back on his Web site, saying “I thank you for insulting me” but “I am not gay.”
“We can learn from him that blogging can be fun, interesting and provocative,” Leos said.
One politically conscious blogger rapped Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government over its failure to curb chronic corruption.
“I feel so shameful of our Prime Minister Hun Sen. We are begging the world for money,” Vanak Thom wrote on his “Blog By Khmer.” “(His) government is too corrupt. Without corruption, I know our Cambodia can be free from the abyss of this poverty.”
Human Rights Watch continues to criticize the Cambodian government’s treatment of dissent, but bloggers are able to express at least some overt criticism. And there is no official censorship.
More to the point, said John Weeks, an American who runs the House32.com Web design firm in Phnom Penh, blogs are not yet relevant to most Cambodians.
“I don’t see blogs where farmers talk about rainfall, or where (motorbike-taxi drivers) complain about gas prices,” he said.
For starters, the blogs are generally in English, a language that’s becoming more popular among the new generation than French, which is the legacy of colonial times. Yet, English is spoken and read by only a tiny fraction of the country’s population, limiting usefulness of the blogs to the elite.
Although there are blogs in Khmer, the Cambodian language, their growth is also hampered by the lack of standardized native fonts, said Klein, the early Internet user.
Cambodia’s Internet penetration also is among the lowest in the world, in part due to high electricity and network connection costs. An hour of access at an Internet cafe here costs about 2,000 riel, or 50 cents, while 35 percent of Cambodians make less than the poverty-level income of 45 cents a day.
While only a tiny proportion of Cambodians go online, the Pew Internet and American Life Project says more than 71 percent of American adults use the Internet. About 13 percent of residents of neighboring Thailand and 19 percent of people in Vietnam have regular access, said Preetam Rai, Southeast Asian editor of Global Voices.
Seeking to reduce poverty and encourage economic growth by narrowing the digital divide, Cambodia’s government has made national computer literacy a priority. It is linking local governments and national agencies to a main government data center, using a $50 million loan from South Korea, said Soung Noy, deputy secretary-general of the official National Information Communications Technology Development Authority.
Blogger Ly Borin said modern technology such as computers are simply too advanced for many older Cambodians, who have mostly just been struggling to survive for the past 30 years. The new technology, he said, “is hard for them to follow.”
Cambodia’s violent past also has made many older people – though not Sihanouk – fearful of speaking their minds, Klein said.
Less elevated Cambodians than Sihanouk meanwhile said they hoped to use their blogs to show how far their country has come from its troubled past.
“Cambodia is not just about Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot,” said Bun Tharum, 25, referring to the now-defunct radical communist group and its late leader. “Now we have a tool to inform the outside world about how we are thinking and progressing.”
SOURCE: Associated Press