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How the Internet makes its presence felt

Once a domain reserved for tourists and foreigners, ever-cheaper Web cafes across Phnom Penh are now packed with young Cambodians. And as the cost of Web access and personal computers continues to drop, observers expect to see many more households across the country acquiring a second address-for e-mail.

In a series of interviews conducted by Chheng Meng and Phatry Derek Pan for the Post, two men - one credited with bringing email to Cambodia in 1994 and the other a co-founder of the world's largest Khmer website - talk about their work.

Norbert Klein

Open Forum of Cambodia

Norbert Klein serves as adviser to the director of the Open Forum of Cambodia, and has lived in Cambodia since 1990. Editor of two weekly press reviews of Khmer media, Klein is credited with introducing Cambodia to e-mail in 1994.

Post: Explain the claim that you brought e-mail to Cambodia in1994.

Klein: Before I arrived in Cambodia, I was an early e-mail user in Germany starting in 1983. I used it to communicate internationally. When I arrived in Cambodia, I noticed a need for e-mail here so I sought advice on creating a system..

At that time I was working at the Ministry of Agriculture in the department of animal health and production. One of my Cambodian colleagues was offered a scholarship for an international study program but could not accept because he had no access to e-mail.

I thought: "No e-mail means no international education? That's unfair." So I set out to establish the first such communication system in Cambodia.

Post: What changes have you observed in Cambodia since the introduction of the Internet?

Klein: When I started the first e-mail system, it was mainly to open up a path for international communication in Cambodia, since it had been isolated for many years. As more people have started using e-mail, it has become an instrument of communication between people in the kingdom as well.

The Web has also made it easier for people to get information from international sources which are only available outside Cambodia. And this can happen quickly and cheaply. (Buying books abroad is expensive, and takes quite a long time.)

Post: Is it difficult for newcomers and older Cambodians to learn to use the Web?

Klein: Of course not. I think it will become increasingly easier for everyone to access the Internet, even if they do not know the English necessary to operate a computer. Some excellent Khmer-language software has been developed that is available legally and free of charge.

Vibol Hou

Khmer Connection

While Klein's early efforts connected Cambodians to the world around them, California-based Vibol Sol has linked expatriate Khmers to one another, and to life back in Cambodia. Sol, 25, is executive director and co-founder of KhmerConnection, an online community for overseas Cambodians. With 35,000 visitors per month, it is the world's most popular Khmer web site.

Post: What was your initial vision for the Khmerconnection? Did you have any idea that it would be so big?

Sol: I envisioned KhmerConnection (KC) as an open and active community of Khmers. To that extent, it has been extremely successful and I am proud of all the people who made it possible. I did not anticipate that KC would be the world's largest Khmer site, but all of the co-founders agreed that we wanted it to be big. We devoted hundreds of hours of hard work to the site-of course we wanted to see it grow.

Post: You have obviously struck a chord among Khmers-you have a loyal member base, and the page is viewed three million times each month. Why do you think people are so attracted to KC? Is your membership still growing?

Sol: Yes, though it varies. I'd estimate 75 new members join in an average month. I think most members would agree that KC is one of the few places on the Internet where they can interact with fellow Khmers from around the world. For those in remote locations without a strong Khmer population, KC is sort of an oasis in the desert.

Other members are drawn to the dialogue: They find it satisfying to be able to engage in discourse with others who share a similar background and awareness of Cambodian culture. And many of them are around the same age-the majority are between 16 and 31 years old. They discuss everything from business to entertainment to romance... the reasons they log in are practically endless.

Post: Where is KC headed in the coming years?

Sol: KC will continue to exist as a medium for Khmers around the world. But for my co-founders and me to remain engaged, the website must keep growing. I've written about this on my weblog: I would love to see the KC site permeate the fabric of Khmer society, empowering us all to do something more productive. That could be as simple as meeting new people face-to-face, or participating in cultural events. We even learn more about the Cambodian diaspora... The goal is to keep moving forward.



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